Judith and Holofernes
- Place of origin:
Florence, Italy (sculpted)
ca. 1455 (sculpted)
Lelli, Oronzio (maker)
- Materials and Techniques:
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Medieval and Renaissance, room 64b, case FS
Plaster cast taken from original bronze group of Judith and Holfernes, in the Palazzo della Singoria (Palazzo Vecchio), Florence.
The subject is taken from the Old Testament book of Judith. The King of Nineveh, sends his general Holofernes to subdue the Jews. The latter besieges them in Bethulia. Famine undermines the courage of the besieged and they contemplate surrender, but Judith, a widow, claims that she will deliver the city. She goes into the camp of the Assyrians and captivates Holofernes by her beauty, and finally takes advantage of the general's intoxication to cut off his head. She returns inviolate to the city with his head as a trophy. Thestory is thought to be an allegorical interpretation of Humility triumphing over Pride.
Plaster cast after the original bronze group of Judith and Holfernes, in the Palazzo della Singoria (Palazzo Vecchio), Florence. Signed on the cushion 'OPVS. DONATELLI.FLO' and inscribed around the top of the original granite pedestal 'EXEMPLVM. SAL. PVB.CIVES. POS. MCCCCXCV'. The statue and its base were designed as the centre of a fountain, with water spouts in the corner of the cushion. The group is in the round. Judith is shown in the act of decapitating Holofernes.
Place of Origin
Florence, Italy (sculpted)
ca. 1455 (sculpted)
Lelli, Oronzio (maker)
Materials and Techniques
Marks and inscriptions
'OPVS. DONATELLI.FLOR' The work of the Florentine, Donatello
'EXEMPLVM. SAL. PVB.CIVES. POS. MCCCCXCV'.
Height: 540.3 cm, Width: 93 cm, Depth: 103 cm, Weight: 200 kg Estimate
Object history note
Purchased via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA in 1893 for £139 3s 11d.
The Special Committee on Casts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York wrote to the authorities at South Kensington in August 1892, offering them the opportunity of obtaining a copy of the Judith and Holofernes group by Donatello, under the favourable conditions negotiated by them with the Ministry of Public Instruction of the Kingdom of Italy. The casting was to be undertaken by the Florentine-based plaster cast manufacturer, Oronzio Lelli. The company was based in 95 Corso de' Tintori, 95, Florence. Later the company was headed by Giuseppe Lelli, probably the son of Oronzio. The cost of the copies would be 3808 francs minimum or 5020 francs maximum, depending on the number of institutions taking advantage of the offer. There were a small number of other casts offered, and the South Kensington Museum was invited to ‘co-operate taking advantage of this opportunity to secure first copies of casts taken directly from the originals of these important works’. The fact that these were the first casts taken from moulds of the group was important in ensuring the highest quality casts.
The Science and Art Department agreed to the purchase three copies of the cast, one each for the South Kensington Museum, Dublin Museum and Edinburgh Museum. This was not an unusual practice, and the joint purchasing of reproductions such as this enabled significant savings to be made. A note on the file relating to the acquisition records the recommendation that the Dublin Museum and Edinburgh Museum should have their attention drawn to the fact ‘that the Italian Government very rarely gives permission to cast bronzes and such an opportunity very rarely occurs’.
Oronzio Lelli was informed of the decision and agreed to despatch the casts to the three Museums. He wrote in March 1893 to the authorities at South Kensington stating that the three casts were now ready 'but not dry enough to be sent with safety. This will necessitate about 20 days more before they can be packed'. We can therefore assume that the moulds and casting for the Judith and Holofernes probably took place sometime in the Spring of 1893.
The acquisition of the pedestal was a later acquisition in July 1893. Museum papers record the suggestion that the recently acquired cast of the group 'would not look well unless mounted upon a copy of the original pedestal'. As with the Judith and Holofernes group, it was thought that both the museums at Edinburgh and Dublin would also like to join with the South Kensington Museum in order to obtain the reproductions at a reduced rate. Edward Robinson, the purchasing Agent of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston was also to be advised as it had been his assistance that helped in the acquisition of the cast of the Judith and Holofernes group.
Meanwhile, Lelli had been approached and believed there would be no difficulty in obtaining the necessary permissions to take the cast. Lelli offered copies of the cast of the pedestal at 600 lire if there were several takers, or 1000 lire if only the South Kensington Museum were interested. On 28 July 1893, Lelli wrote to the officials at South Kensington to report that he had that day obtained the permission to cast the pedestal from the local Commission for the Preservation of Monuments in Tuscany.
Later, both casts of the group of Judith and Holofernes and of the pedestal were included in Lelli's catalogue of reproductions available for sale including the Catalogo Illustrato dei Monumenti. Statue, Bassirilievi e altre sculture di varie epoche che si trovano formate in gesso nell laboratorio di Oronzi Lelli in Firenze - Corso de' Tintori, N. 95, 1894, as no. 163. It appears again in the Catalogo dei Monumenti, Statue, Bassirilievi e altre sculpture di varie epoche che si trovano formate in gesso nel premiato stabilimento di Giuseppe Lelli (fu Oronzio), Firenze, 1899, again listed as no. 163 with the price of 1800 lire.
When the cast of Judith and Holofernes was acquired it was not originally shown in the South-East Court (or Architectural Courts, as the Cast Courts were originally known). According to J. H. Pollen, 'Other Italian sculpture, original and in plaster casts, is shown in the corridors that surround the north court' (John Hungerford Pollen, Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education. South Kensington Museum. A Description of the Architecture and Monumental Sculpture in the South-East Court of the South Kensington Museum, London, 1874, p.1.
Historical significance: Given the importance of the Judith and Holofernes as an autograph work by Donatello, it is not surprising that a cast should be acquired for the South Kensington Museum. The group would complement the Museums existing collection of Italian Renaissance works, as well as the collection of casts of works by Donatello. By the time this cast was acquired, the Museum already had the free-standing figures of St George (Bargello) inv.no.1864-36 and the David (Bargello) inv.no. 1885-197. As well as a series of twelve reliefs from Sant' Antonio, Padua inv.nos. 1870-18 and a to j) and the Cantoria in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence inv. no. 1877-44.
Historical context note
The Judith and Holofernes was one of the later works executed by Donatello, and was commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici. No documentary evidence survives on the dating of the group but a date of around 1455 has been suggested. It was originally executed as a free-standing centrepiece for a fountain in the back garden of the Medici palace. Water poured out from the four corners of the cushion and from the three reliefs in the base. The group was one of two bronze free-standing figures commissioned from Donatello by the Medici. The bronze figure of David executed by Donatello for the same location is now in the Museo Nazionale (Bargello). The Judith and Holofernes group was confiscated by the Florentine government on the expulsion of the Medici from Florence in 1494, and the figure removed from the Medici palace and erected in the Piazza della Signoria. The second inscription on the top of the pedestal from 1495 was added at this time. The group is now housed inside the Palazzo della Signoria (Palazzo Vecchio) because of conservation concerns.
The group was executed in the round and the positioning and use of the cushion in the composition are particularly important in enabling four distinct and separate faces to be revealed from each of the four angles of the cusion. Pope-Hennessy notes: "If Donatello had confined himself to devising a group of two figures with four independent faces, this would have been astonishing enough. But the Judith reveals a synthesis of form and content so perfect that each of the four faces enriches its interpretive character, and extends our knowledge of the conflict that is expressed in marvellously graphic fasion in the head. Not only is this in its formal aspect one of the greatest of all statues, but it reaches a level of maturity and penetration which no later sculptor save Michelangelo attains' (Pope-Hennessy 1958, p. 14).
Pope-Hennessy suggests that Donatello's use of a cushion as the base on which the group stands was to increase the feeling of realism within the scheme. Donatello had previously used this device with his figure of St Mark in the guildhall. Pope-Hennessy describes the free-standing bronze statue, like the bronze niche figure executed by Donatello for the Campanile, as 'the revival of a classical art form', and explains that Donatello must have studied classical Roman statuettes. Donatello had collaborated with the sculptor Rosso, on a planned two-figue group depicting Abraham and Isaac for the Campanile. This group depicted Isaac kneeling below Abraham with one knee protruding from the base, and Abraham's head in profile, a closely similar composition later developed by Donatello in the Judith and Holofernes group. The intricacies of the composition of the group are discussed fully by Pope-Hennessy who explains how Donatello was unique in attempting to depict the act of decapitating Holofernes, rather than a more conventional static pose showing Judith with the severed head of Holofernes (Pope-Hennessy, Italian Renaissance Sculpture, London, 1958, p. 14).
The subject is taken from the Old Testament and it is thought to be an allegorical interpretation of Humility triumphing over Pride. This is suggested by a recorded, but now lost, inscription which read: 'Kingdoms fall through luxury, cities rise through virtues; behold the neck of pride severed by humility'. The Assyrian army had laid seige to the Jewish city of Bethulia and the citizens of that city were on the point of surrender. Judith, a widow from the city, made her way to the Assyrian lines and with the pretense of being on the side of the Assyrians, gained the trust of the Assyrian general, Holofernes. When she had gained complete trust and when Holofernes was in a drunken state, she used his own sword to decapitate him.
Technical examination of the Judith and Holofernes reveals that group was cast in eleven pieces, and that waxes appear to have been placed on actual fabric to form the drapery. It has also been suggested that he legs were moulded from life, but this is disputed. It appears that the group was original gilt as some traces of gilding were found on the Judith. The cast of the group in the Museum's collection is not gilt but has been painted a dark brown colour to resemble the bronze original.
John Pope-Hennessy, Italian Renaissance Sculpture, London, 1958, pp. 8, 12-14, 285-6
Grove Art Online, Donatello
Charles Avery, Donatello. An introduction, New York, 1994, pp. 94-5
Artur Rosenauer, Donatello, Milan, 1993, pp. 283-6
Plaster cast after the bronze original group of Judith and Holfernes, in the Palazzo della Signoria (Palazzo Vecchio), Florence; Donatello, third quarter of the 15th century, cast by Oronzio Lelli 1893
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Board of Eduction, South Kensington. List of Reproductions in Metal and Plaster acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington. In the Year 1893. (second edition), Wyman and Sons Ltd, London, 1900, p. 56