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The context of patronage in Donatello’s ‘Judith and Holofernes’

The word Renaissance is literally translated to “rebirth”, and the Italians used it to describe the rediscovering of the idea that the value of man, and the beauty of the world, was to be celebrated and encouraged! Rather than the widespread religious denial of pleasure, in favour of the life waiting beyond death.

The discovery of Ancient Greek and Roman art in the 14th century made way for the revolutionary humanist movements that spread all over Italy. Patrons of the arts leapt at the chance to prove their intellect and favour of the subject, a way of showing sass that has not changed over the centuries. Consequently, art in these times showcased this reborn way of thinking, often taking religious subjects and filling them with symbolism, allegories, representation, and humanist imagery.

An excellent example of this and a favourite of mine is Judith and Holofernes, sculpted by Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi – better known as Donatello (1386-1466).

Donatello, Judith and Holofernes
Donatello, “Judith and Holofernes”, 1450s, bronze, 263cm tall, Florence, Italy, Palazzo Vecchio.

This piece was commissioned in the 1450s by the Medici family. This was a religious idea sculpted into being, but not for the sake of religion: instead, it was a powerful tool representing the Medici rule over Florence, relevant for both the success and downfall of the great family.

Up until its unification in the 19th century, Italy was comprised of a series of city-states. Florence was an independent republic governed by members of the city, and one of the most important due to its strong art influence and trade routes.

The Medici were a prominent family of bankers, originally from the Mugello Valley of the River Sieve, who came to Florence at the end of the 12th Century. They settled in San Lorenzo and made their name as competent bankers through caution and efficiency.

Their family dramas, power plays, and politics of Florence and the Medici are a whole book of their own. In 1433, due to a conspiring plot by a rival family, the head of the family Cosimo de’ Medici was exiled. The loyal people of Florence were in an uproar, and 6 months after his exile, Cosimo returned. The city rejoiced, publicly acknowledging him as the ruler of Florence in 1434.

The Medici were great supporters of Florence, its arts, and the artists, maintaining close friendships with several of the local prominent artists. Cosimo’s collection, support, and funding of art and architecture in Florence caused him to be known by historians as the “Godfather of the Italian Renaissance”. Among his close friends was Donatello who was roughly the same age as Cosimo.

Now, the story of Judith and Holofernes was written in the apocryphal Book of Judith. It tells of the King Nebuchadnezzar attempting to conquer the Jewish city Bethulia, with General Holofernes leading the Assyrian armies. Judith is a Jew who sneaks into Holofernes tent to seduce him, then once he is drunk she takes his scimitar and severs his head.

Judith is seen as virtuous and devout, and Holofernes a gluttonous, prideful oppressor. Though she is not usually thought of as a symbol of Florence, Judith would, in this case, represent the righteous rising up against the wicked (specifically Florence against other provinces such as Milan or Naples, all often at war with each other).

The Medici would most certainly want to portray themselves as defenders of liberty and the people, having been on the receiving end of a sinister plan to outcast the family and then successfully beating their persecutors to return in glory: just as Judith returned with Holofernes’ severed head, saving her city.

Donatello would have cast this using the lost wax process. Made from a mix of copper and tin, therefore costlier than marble, patrons chose bronze to showcase not only wealth but appreciation for the classical revival that was underway at the time.

Donatello himself was very interested in Ancient Roman sculptures, and was one of the first in the period to utilise their ideas in his work, with Renaissance writer Vasari calling him the “regola degli altri, the measure and example for all the other sculptors of the Early Renaissance”.

Bronze also gives the artist more freedom with balance and form. Judith’s’ arm is outstretched and free, holding the scimitar powerfully above her head. The bronze materials give the artist opportunity to make a more dynamic form – in a marble sculpture Donatello would most likely have had to connect her arm to her head so it would not be unbalanced or easily damaged, giving it less liveliness.

This is one of the first sculptures to be made ‘in the round’: with no fixed viewpoint, able to be observed from all angles. Originally fully gilded, the work was cast in 11 pieces, perhaps to have made the gilding process easier. The effect of light hitting the original gilt would have given the outstretched arm even more perceived motion, adding to the naturalistic qualities.

Donatello was not a humanist intellectual himself, living a simple and unpretentious life, and was very careless with money earned from his success. However, he was friends with many humanists such as Alberti and Poggio, and does showcase great use of humanist qualities in this work.

Donatello, Judith and Holofernes, head detail
Donatello, “Judith and Holofernes”, Head detail.

Judith stands powerfully above Holofernes, after having already made one cut on his neck (as shown above). She has taken her cities fate into her own hands, literally!, representing the power of one person, and the difference they can make. There is some debate as to whether the gash on Holofernes neck is deliberate or a casting mistake. Possibly it is both, with Donatello deciding to leave the unplanned gap open to show the suggestion of a severed neck, further establishing the scene.

Donatello, Judith and Holofernes, Palazzo Vecchio
Donatello, “Judith and Holofernes”, Closer view of the straddled leg.

Judith is straddling the general’s shoulder, standing on his arm and bracing his head against her thigh, a sign of Donatello’s thought into the realism of the events. Her drapery is very naturalistic, seemingly ruffled: she has just attacked a man after all. Holofernes is slumped in an accurate depiction of the recently dead, his arms dangling by his side, his face slack-jawed and expressionless.

Donatello, Judith and Holofernes, Judith detail
Donatello, “Judith and Holofernes”, Judith detail.

Judith’s own expression is a faraway one of inner reflection – as if struggling between the survival of her people and the sin of murder. This would represent the Medici’s religious devotion, (evidenced by Cosimo’s dedication to restoring the San Marco church for example, and appreciation of religious artists and works) and also their fervent commitment to their own city.

The Medici had also commissioned another symbol of Florence from their friend Donatello; the bronze David, which sat in their courtyard for all to see when the main doors were open.

Donatello, David
Donatello, “David”, 1445, bronze, 158cm tall. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

These sculptures could be seen as an extravagant flaunting of wealth, but instead were gallant representations of the Medici family’s promise to do right by the people of Florence, who were in turn appreciative of Cosimo’s dedication and defence of their city’s independence and liberty.

But when the Younger Piero, Cosimo’s grandson, took over after his father Lorenzo’s death in 1492, he surrendered Florence to France’s King Charles VIII, and the Medici family were subsequently exiled.

How ironic then, that this once optimistic representation of the Medici was then used against them. The Judith and Holofernes sculpture was moved to outside the town hall (the Palazzo Vecchio), this time to symbolise the virtuous people of Florence overcoming the oppression of the tyrannical Medici.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that Judith and Holofernes was made as a symbol of the political power and benevolence of the Medici family were the two inscriptions below the work, as recorded in the State Archives of Florence. These were attached later by Piero the Gouty in dedication, after the death of Cosimo. Upon the column base reads “Kingdoms fall through luxury; cities rise through virtues; behold the neck of pride severed by humility”. The sin of pride is further evinced by the cushion that Holofernes is seated upon, and the medallion around his neck that has been forcibly swung to his back – both a symbol of luxury and pride.

This quote by itself could be seen as simply “virtue overcoming vice”, but the not so subtle second inscription on the side of the column enforces the message. It reads, “Piero Son of Cosimo Medici has dedicated the statue of this woman to that liberty and fortitude bestowed on the republic by the invincible and constant spirit of the citizens”. A direct reference to the city of Florence, combined with the first inscription and the sculpture itself – this can be nothing else but a reminder, message, even threat. The Medici rule Florence. This column was, of course, removed when the sculpture was moved to its new lifelong residence, and the inscriptions have not survived.

During the Renaissance, every detail put in by the artists meant something. Donatello had ample opportunity with Judith and Holofernes to portray the Medici and their civic power; from the subject itself, to symbolism, to the figures form. The Medici were loved for their devotion to their city and then hated for their despotism. The sculpture embodies their rise and, however unintentionally, their disgrace.

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