This painting was executed by Giovanni Baglione in 1608, as is proved by payment receipts that are still preserved in the Borghese archival collection of the Vatican Apostolic Archive. The work may have been commissioned by Cardinal Scipione or his uncle Giovanni Battista, brother of Pope Paul V.
The scene depicts the moment immediately following Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes. The Jewish heroine places the severed head of the cruel general in a bag held by her elderly servant, who recalls the figures of Caravaggio. The contrast between the dim light that surrounds Holofernes’s lifeless body and the brightness that highlights the figure of Judith foregrounds her moral role as the saviour of her people.
Salvator Rosa, 260 x 189 x 10 cm
Collection of Scipione Borghese, 1608; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 18, no. 41. Purchased by Italian state, 1902.
Several important documents have aided us in reconstructing the story behind the painting of Judith and Holofernes. Thanks to payment receipts preserved in the Borghese archival collection of the Vatican Apostolic Archive (Guglielmi 1954, pp. 316, 325; Della Pergola 1959, p. 215, n. 46), we know that Giovanni Baglione painted this work for the wealthy and powerful family in 1608. A document dated 2 May of that year, in which the ‘painting with the story of Judith’ is valued at ‘100 scudi’, contains the name of Giovanni Battista Borghese, brother of the pope and possibly the patron of the work. It is equally possible that at this time the canvas was ordered by the cardinal-nephew himself, in his capacity as owner of the family’s entire picture gallery. In the short poem written by Scipione Francucci in 1613 describing the collection (st. 164-181), Judith is grouped together with Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath (inv. no. 455) and Cigoli’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (inv. no. 14). In the context of the Borghese Collection, these three works carried out a specific decorative programme, given that they represent Old Testament virtues (Herrmann Fiore 1985, p. IX; Macioce 2002, pp. XXII).
The work is mentioned in Jacopo Manilli’s guidebook to Villa Pinciana (1650, p. 60) as well as in that of Domenico Montelatici (1700, p. 205). While both of these writers made the correct attribution to the Roman painter, it was curiously ascribed to an unknown artist in the Inventario Fidecommissario of 1833. At the end of the 19th century, Adolfo Venturi (1893, p. 29) reestablished the attribution to Baglione. This scholar, however, harshly criticised the canvas, defining it as a vain attempt to imitate Caravaggio on the part of his rival.
Judith and Holofernes may be the first work by Baglione to have entered the Borghese Collection (earlier, that is, than the Ecstasy of St Francis – no longer in the Galleria – and the Ecce Homo (inv. no. 321)); yet this question is still debated. What is certain is that by 1608 the artist was already well known, having completed prestigious public projects both in Rome and beyond. By then he had undoubtedly been viewed favourably by Scipione Borghese, who would soon engage him to decorate the family chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore (1610-1612; see Nicolaci 2021, pp. 130).
The focus of the scene is Judith, portrayed here full-length, as she places Holofernes’s severed head in a bag held by her servant Abra, who stands to her left. Abra is depicted in profile, her terrified gaze directed at the general’s body on the other side of the composition, which though lifeless still emits a sense of agony. The work centres on contrasts, beginning with the lighting: the dimly-lit figure of Holofernes beneath the curtain serves to highlight the fully illuminated Judith, who is naked to the waist. In addition, the graceful appearance of the heroine stands out against the violent expression that remains on the general’s immense face. By thus juxtaposing beauty to ugliness and calm to tension, the artist not only exalts the dramatic aspect of the scene but also loudly proclaims its message, namely Judith’s moral virtue and her role as saviour of her people (Macioce 2002, p. XXIII, and 2010, p. 302; O’Neil 2002, p. 105; Nicolaci 2021).
The presence of the elderly servant in the scene – in the Old Testament narrative she is actually a young woman – has led some scholars to propose that Baglione had seen the painting of the same subject executed shortly before by Caravaggio for the banker Ottavio Costa (held today at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini in Rome). Just as in Merisi’s work, here the woman is represented in profile, her deeply wrinkled face showing an expression of profound horror at Judith’s cruel gesture. The choice of depicting the servant as an elderly woman serves to further highlight the youth and candour of the protagonist, with her angelic countenance and golden locks (Nicolaci 2021).
While the figure of the servant is characterised by that marked naturalism reminiscent of Caravaggio, that of Judith is more mannered: this juxtaposing of styles is indeed typical of Baglione, who harmoniously blended modes and models in a way that attests to his great eclectic abilities. Not only the naturalistic rendering of the maidservant but also the strong chiaroscuro contrast indeed betray the strong influence of Caravaggio on Baglione. At the same time, the latter did not set out to merely imitate Merisi, as is evident in his choice to depict the moment immediately following the murder of Holofernes, rather than the more dramatic one of the beheading itself, which defines the Costa painting.
Two preparatory studies for the Borghese Judith are held today in the Schift collection in New York and in the Louvre in Paris, respectively (Nicolaci 2020, pp. 149-150, and 2021, p. 132).
Pier Ludovico Puddu