By Alessandra Masu, author, journalist and art historian
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the rediscovery of Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes, Palazzo Barberini is dedicating the exhibition Caravaggio and Artemisia: The Challenge of Judith (until March 27, 2022) to the success of the theme in the sixteenth century and in Baroque painting.
The Book of Judith recounts how the intrepid widow from Bethulia saved the people of Israel from the tyranny of the Assyrians. She did this by beheading their fearful general Holofernes who, succumbing to her charms, had fallen into a drunken stupor after a banquet held in his honor.
Caravaggio proposes/imposes the viewer to witness a bloody homicide perpetrated in real time, in front of our eyes, by the beautiful yet lethal Judith. In the eyes of his contemporaries, the image was revolutionary compared with earlier depictions of the subject. In painted depictions before Caravaggio, Judith normally displays Holofernes’ head to mark the successful completion of a task already performed.
The picture was originally the property of Ottavio Costa, one of Rome’s wealthiest early seventeenth-century bankers. He was so proud to own it that he forbade its sale even after his death, and discouraged the production of copies or imitations. Yet the painting was hugely popular with Caravaggio’s fellow artists, and became broadly accepted as a model for a new iconography of the biblical heroine.
Seventy years after Roberto Longhi’s exceptional (and adventurous, as the curator, Maria Cristina Terzaghi, reports in the catalog) rediscovery of the painting, the show reconstructs the development of the representation of the biblical story frequently staged in seventeenth-century literature and theatre. The exhibition analyzes its theological and moral implications in both the iconographic precedents of Caravaggio and Artemisia, and in the versions more directly influenced by the Costa Judith. An entire section is reserved to Artemisia Gentileschi’s personal approach on the theme, which was to become exemplary in its turn.
In both halves of the exhibition—before and after Caravaggio’s Judith—the curators’ effort to represent in a more equitable and balanced way women’s talents, such as those of Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi, is noticeable. Likewise, the exhibition catalog includes a contribution from the doyen of gender history in early modern Rome in Anglo-Saxon academia, Elizabeth S. Cohen: Donne lavoratrici nella Roma barocca: nè eroine, nè sante (Working women in Baroque Rome: neither heroines nor saints).
Judith, from the Maniera to the Natural
Already in the second half of the sixteenth century, the traditional representation of the episode of Judith and Holofernes alluded to some of the motifs that would enter the scene in the masterpieces of Caravaggio and Artemisia. Jacopo Tintoretto’s large horizontal composition sets the action inside the tent of the Assyrian general. The descriptive details of his armor, the rich fabrics of the bed and the remains of the banquet only accentuate the theatrical emphasis of the gestures of the figures.
The work of Bolognese painter Lavinia Fontana shows a sophisticated interest in mimicry, beyond the typically Mannerist meticulous representation of objects and clothes still far from the dramatic vision of Caravaggio and Artemisia yet to come.
Commissioned in Rome by the banker Ottavio Costa sometime between the end of the sixteenth century and early 1600, Caravaggio’s Judith (pictured above) must have been known to the artist’s followers despite its owner’s jealous guardianship, and had an irresistible impact on them.
Caravaggio painted another version of the subject which was offered for sale in Naples in 1607. This painting is now considered lost, since there is no agreement among specialists on the attribution to Caravaggio of the painting discovered in a French attic in 2014 and acquired by an American collector before being auctioned in Toulouse in June 2019.
Its memory, however, is preserved in a painting attributed to Louis Finson, today in the collections of Intesa Sanpaolo at Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano in Naples, where it will be hosted from December 2022 in the next important exhibition on Artemisia Gentileschi, with a focus on her Neapolitan period.
Artemisia Gentileschi and Judith’s theatricality
Artemisia Gentileschi was the most original and passionate interpreter of Caravaggio’s invention. Her painting on the theme reflects a profound and personal exploration of the theatrical representation of the story of Judith and Holofernes.
Artemisia realised that the power of Caravaggio’s image lay in its depicting the climax of the action. And so, she adopted the same approach in the Capodimonte version, which she is likely to have painted in Rome around 1612. But Artemisia emphasized the violence of Holophernes’ “execution” with chilling details, such as the muscular effort of Judith aided by her maid and the abundant blood gushing from the severed head and soaking the mattress. This detail seems to me to reference the murder-execution of the Roman nobleman Francesco Cenci in 1598 described in the trial sources I published last year (perchè io non voglio star più a questa vita. La voce di Beatrice Cenci dai documenti conservati negli archivi romani, Ginevra Bentivoglio EditoriA), as well as of the beheading—on September 11, 1599—of his daughter Beatrice, at the same time victim of her father and instigator of his murder, which should have inspired Caravaggio.
The Judith and her Maidservant of the Uffizi—probably painted in Florence around 1615—derives from a composition painted perhaps in collaboration with her father Orazio (Oslo, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design). It captures a less dramatic moment of the story, emphasizing rather the complicity between the two women.
Again, this seems to resonate with the case of Francesco Cenci, two women—his daughter Beatrice together with his wife Lucrezia—had petitioned his own family to kill Francesco to stop the abuse and torture he had inflicted on the two women.
Of the several Judiths on display derived from Caravaggio and Artemisia, two are by artists who were fathers and masters of women artists known in their time, yet still to be studied thoroughly. I refer to the Sicilian Pietro Novelli, father of Rosalia Novelli (Palermo, 1622–1688), and the Neapolitan Filippo Vitale, stepfather of Diana de Rosa, also known as Annella de Rosa or Annella di Massimo (Naples, 1602–1643).
Author, journalist and art historian Alessandra Masu loves to unearth the stories of overlooked women and collects art created by women from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century. Alessandra’s writing has appeared in many places in print including D, la Repubblica’s weekly style magazine. As an art historian, she has contributed to several exhibitions and art publications and is the author of the historical novel Lena, che è donna di Caravaggio (EtGraphiae, 2013). In 2020, with Ginevra Bentivoglio Editoria, Alessandra published Perchè io non voglio star più a questa vita. La voce di Beatrice Cenci dai documenti conservati negli archivi romani. In 2016 Alessandra, in collaboration with art historians Consuelo Lollobrigida and Beatrice De Ruggieri, founded the cultural association Artemisia Gentileschi, which is based in Rome.
Caravaggio and Artemisia: the Challenge of Judith is on at Palazzo Barberini in Rome through March 27, 2022.
More Art Herstory posts about Artemisia Gentileschi:
Artemisia Gentileschi: What Wasn’t in the London Exhibition and Why it Matters, by Dr. Jesse Locker
Two of a Kind: Giovanna Garzoni and Artemisia Gentileschi, Guest post by Dr. Mary D. Garrard
“Artemisia” at the National Gallery: A Review, by Dr. Sheila McTighe
The Priceless Legacy of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Curator’s Perspective, Guest post by Dr. Judith W. Mann
Talking Artemisia Gentileschi with Joy McCullough, Author of “Blood Water Paint”
Art Herstory Resource Page: Artemisia Gentileschi
More posts about Italian women artists:
Stitching for Virtue: Lavinia Fontana, Elisabetta Sirani, and Textiles in Early Modern Bologna, by Dr. Patricia Rocco
Lavinia Fontana and Elisabetta Sirani at the Smith College Art Museum, by Dr. Danielle Carrabino
Elisabetta Sirani of Bologna (1638–1665), by Dr. Adelina Modesti
Lavinia Fontana: Italy’s First Female Professional Artist, by Dr. Elizabeth Lev
Celebrating Bologna’s Women Artists, by Dr. Babette Bohn
The Restoration of Royalty: Lavinia Fontana’s Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, by Dr. Aoife Brady
Sister Eufrasia Burlamacchi (Lucca, 1478–1548), by Dr. Loretta Vandi
Giovanna Garzoni’s Portrait of Zaga Christ (Ṣägga Krǝstos), by Dr. Alexandra Letvin
“I feel again the violence of a curious desire”: Rare client testimonies on Rosalba Carriera’s erotic art, Guest post by Dr. Angela Oberer
Plautilla Bricci (1616–1705): A Talented Woman Architect in Baroque Rome, Guest post by Dr. Consuelo Lollobrigida
Sister Caterina Vigri (St. Catherine of Bologna) and “Drawing for Devotion,” Guest post by Dr. Kathleen G. Arthur
Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596–1676), Convent Artist, Guest post by Dr. Angela Ghirardi
Renaissance Women Painting Themselves, Guest post by Dr. Katherine McIver
More Art Herstory exhibition reviews:
Anna Dorothea Therbusch: A Woman Painting Against Eighteenth-century Odds, by Stephanie Pearson
Plautilla Bricci: A Painter & “Architettrice” in Seventeenth-century Rome, by Alessandra Masu
In defense of monographic exhibitions of female artists: The case of Fede Galizia, by Camille Nouhant
By Her Hand: Personal Thoughts and Reflections on an Exhibition, by Oliver Tostmann
The Ladies of Art are in Milan, by Dr. Cecilia Gamberini
“La grandezza del universo” nell’arte di Giovanna Garzoni / “The grandeur of the universe” in the art of Giovanna Garzoni, by Dr. Sara Matthews-Grieco
Warp and Weft: Women as Custodians of Jewish Heritage in Italy, by Dr. Anastazja Buttitta
Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age at the National Museum of Women in the Arts
A Tale of Two Women Painters, by Natasha Moura
Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, by Dr. Elizabeth Sutton
‘Bright Souls’: A London Exhibition Celebrating Mary Beale, Joan Carlile, and Anne Killigrew, by Dr. Laura Gowing