Judith, the "Other" David of Florence

Many are familiar with the Biblical account of David, the young shepherd boy who took down the giant Goliath simply with his sling. It is a classic story of good versus evil ‒ a tale of how the underdog saves the day in the end. From medieval times and throughout the Renaissance, David became a symbol of the city of Florence and its fight for political independence and freedom from tyranny. Representations of David can be seen in frescoes on the walls of medieval churches; on the famous “Gates of Paradise” by Lorenzo Ghiberti on the Baptistery of Florence; and in the sculpture of Donatello and Verrocchio. Perhaps the most famous David of all is Michelangelo’s colossal now housed in the Accademia Gallery. But there is another kind of “David” in the history of Florence, a female version of the hero ‒ Judith.
 
Just like David, Judith beheaded the man who threatened the freedom and survival of her people. Her story comes from the deuterocanonical book of the Old Testament named after her. It tells the story of how the people of Bethulia lay under siege by the Assyrians and how Judith came to the rescue by crossing enemy lines and convincing the Assyrians to take her in. Once inside, Judith charmed them all with her beauty and her words. The Assyrian army general Holofernes invited her to a banquet planning to seduce her. However, in the end, he was the real victim. Once she was left alone with Holofernes, who by now lay in a drunken state, Judith was able to behead him. She then safely escaped with the head of Holofernes and returned to her people. Upon seeing the head, the people believed God was on their side. They attacked the Assyrians, who were now in a panic without their leader, and regained their freedom.
 
In Florentine culture, both David and Judith were symbols of freedom and represented republican ideals. Their stories were popular subjects in Florentine art. One of the most famous representations of Judith is the bronze statue created by Donatello for the Medici in about 1457. She stood in their palace courtyard along with a bronze David also by Donatello. It seems that by commissioning these works, the Medici intended to make it clear to all that they were supporters of republican sentiment. After the Medici were accused of violating these ideals and banished from the city in 1494, these two works were looted and brought to Palazzo Vecchio. They stood as trophies, a testament to how the Florentines had exiled those who threatened their freedom. Donatello’s Judith was placed outside Palazzo Vecchio but later replaced by Michelangelo’s colossal marble David in 1504. Perhaps the image of a woman beheading a man was still too shocking in the day.
 
Numerous depictions of the Judith story can be found in museums around town. In the Palatine Gallery at Palazzo Pitti, there is Cristofano Allori’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes, dated 1610 - 12. The work features a self-portrait of the artist in the head of Holofernes, while the artist’s lover appears in the guise of Judith. Also found in the Palatine is Judith and Her Maidservant (1614) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Inspired by the art of the great Baroque master Caravaggio, she was one of the first woman artists to gain professional recognition. Artemisia gives us all the drama and intensity of the particular moment of the story when Judith has to flee with the decapitated head of Holofernes. Heightened drama can be seen in another depiction of Judith by Artemisia at the Uffizi. Commissioned by the Medici in around 1612, Artemisia’s Judith Beheading Holofernes was so shockingly realistic that the work was kept hidden. It is surely an image of Judith that is hard to forget.
 
To see the Judiths of great masters in Florence, join me for some fascinating visits to Palazzo Vecchio, the Palatine Gallery in Palazzo Pitti, and the Uffizi Gallery.

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