I’m Obsessed with Cristofano Allori’s “Judith with the Head of Holofernes”

Jacqui Palumbo
Feb 12, 2020 9:22PM

Cristofani Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020. Courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust.

I’m obsessed with Cristofano Allori’s lovelorn take on Judith and Holofernes. The Florentine artist channeled the angst of heartbreak into the bold Baroque painting. It could be described as the 17th-century equivalent of a breakup song.

I’ve never dated anyone famous enough to enter into the pop culture canon of heartbreak, but I’ve always been curious about the couples that do. I imagine it would be embarrassing to have your dirty laundry aired to the world as a work of art, but it would also be a massive ego boost to know that someone loved you—and then possibly hated you—enough to do so.

I was fascinated by actor Dave Coulier claiming in 2013 that he was the subject of Alanis Morissette’s ’90s anthem “You Oughta Know”; I just couldn’t see her feeling such rage against Full House’s dorky Uncle Joey. The internet felt the same, with a collective “him?

Detail of Cristofani Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020. Courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust.

Detail of Cristofani Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020. Courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust.


Four centuries earlier, the Florentine courts similarly gossiped about the messy affair that inspired Allori’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1613). The artist had painted his lover, Maria di Giovanni Mazzafirri, known as La Mazzafirra, as the beguiling but pious widow Judith. She coolly offers his decapitated head, disguised as the Assyrian general Holofernes, to the viewer. Beside Judith, her servant and accomplice is played by La Mazzafirra’s mother, Abra, who Allori partially blamed for their tempestuous relationship.

The beheading scene, from the Book of Judith in the Old Testament of the Bible, was a favorite among artists for centuries across Europe. In the story, Judith enters the camp of Holofernes, who has laid siege to her home, Bethulia. She earns his trust by pretending to betray the Israelites; one night, after he drinks himself into a stupor, she removes his head with his own sword and saves the city.

Sandro Botticelli, The Return of Judith to Bethulia, 1470. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Depictions of Judith slaying intrigue me because of the many ways that artists have chosen to present her. Sandro Botticelli’s Judith is a delicate woman whose mistress holds the bloodless head in a basket on her head; while Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith is indomitable, grasping his hair as she saws through his neck. Like Allori, Gentileschi’s version includes a self-portrait, possibly painted to purge her anger over the rape she suffered by her mentor. The work has surged in popularity recently as a symbol of female rage.

I particularly love Allori’s version for the way that it balances beauty and violence on a knife’s edge. The effect is immediate: Judith is calm with a piercing, direct gaze, resplendent in a golden gown as she grasps the head of the bearded Holofernes. I emailed London’s Royal Collection Trust, where the painting resides, to ask about what makes the painting so compelling. Lucy Whitaker, a senior curator, noted that it has “high drama, powerful emotions, violence and tension, [and] love and death, combined with a sensitive and finely captured rendering of textures, color, and light.”

Detail of Cristofani Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020. Courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust.

I have a soft spot for sad boys who are bruised by love and forever lost in melancholic thought. That’s how I imagine Allori was as he delicately rendered La Mazzafirra’s beautiful dress and heavy-lidded eyes. Allori imbued his heartache into various works. He drew his ex-lover as Mary Magdalene, painted her as St. Catherine in the Pisa Duomo, and as Hope on a ceiling of Florence’s Pitti Palace. Judith became his most famous painting, and he made at least three versions of it before he died in 1621. (Art historian John Shearman has argued that the Royal Trust painting is the only known version today to feature La Mazzafirra. Allori may have used a different sitter for a Judith hanging at Pitti Palace to suit the needs of his Medici patron.)

What strife did the fair-skinned, dark-haired La Mazzafirra cause the tender-hearted Allori? Art historian and biographer Filippo Baldinucci, who was a child when Allori died, provides the only account of their courtship. “According to Baldinucci, the affair was passionate,” Whitaker said. “Maria di Giovanni Mazzafirri had a destabilizing influence on him. She was extremely beautiful, spent his earnings, caused him enormous jealousy, and made his life a misery”—so much misery that Allori ripped up both of his drawings of Judith and Magdalene that he had based on her likeness; his acquaintance Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger (grandnephew to the famous sculptor) had to piece them back together.

Cristofano Allori, Saint Catherine of Siena, 1612-18. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Cristofani Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1610-12. Courtesy of Pitti Palace.

Without a more detailed account by Baldinucci, we are left to wonder about the nature of the breakup. We only have Allori’s view of La Mazzafirra: the bold woman who can kill a man with ease, and without a spot of blood on her dress. But Judith was never the villain, and casting her as the heroine shows a reverence for the mysterious Florentine woman, even after all the torment he claimed she caused.

After he finished the version from 1613, Allori scrawled upon the canvas a dramatic declaration: “This [work is] of Cristoforo Allori Bronzino; hitherto unvanquished [she] has almost been defeated by the labour [of] painting, in the year 1613.” Almost defeated, but not quite, and we’ll never know if he truly exorcised his infatuation.

What we do know is that La Mazzafirra met her demise in 1617, four years before Allori. Their embittered love story lives on, 400 years later, hidden in a biblical story that has become a modern allegory for female empowerment. Dave Coulier could only hope for such longevity.

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Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.