TIZIANO Vecellio
(b. 1490, Pieve di Cadore, d. 1576, Venezia)


c. 1515
Oil on canvas, 90 x 72 cm
Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome

This masterpiece, one of the finest and most poetical of Titian's creations, is unanimously dated by the critics at around 1515. The main focus is on neither the horrific events nor the religious significance of the scene. It is not even clear if this is Salome with the head of the Baptist, or Judith with the head of Holofernes. The former is suggested by the displaying of the head on a platter, the latter by the presence of the female servant who is a feature of the traditional iconography of the Judith story.

Both at the time when the painting was in the collection of the Duchess of Urbino, and later, when it belonged to the Aldobrandini family, it was believed to depict Herodias, Herod's wife and the mother of Salome. However, a number of foreign visitors who had an opportunity to see Titian's painting in the Villa Aldobrandini at Montecavallo thought it to be a representation of Judith. This common belief is also reflected in modern historiography. In fact, if the figure in the painting were Herodias, dressed here in bright red, carrying the head of John the Baptist on a tray, then the girl in the green dress on her right would have to be Salome. Yet there is nothing regal about the two women, while the seductive attitude of the main figure is well suited to the Jewish heroine Judith, a rich and attractive widow who, with her oppressor Holofernes decapitated, now holds the head with the assistance of her maid. This theme was often treated as a symbol of virtue.

That this interpretation of the subject may be the correct one is also confirmed by the fact that there is a 1533 record of a Judith by Titian in the collection of Alfonso I d'Este. Considered lost, there cannot be the slightest doubt that it is this painting, which comes in fact from the collection of Lucrezia d' Este, granddaughter of Alfonso I.

The painting, with its wonderful colour contrasts of red, green, and white, and its delightful female figures, is one of Titian's depictions of an ideal of female beauty. This is why it was frequently copied.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 17 minutes):
Alessandro Scarlatti: La Giuditta, oratorio, Part I (excerpts)