The painting depicts the biblical episode of young and beautiful Judith, who wants free her hometown, Betulia, from the tyrannical siege of Assyrian general Holofernes. She goes to his tent, pretending to seduce him and makes him drink until he gets drunk and then kills him by beheading him.
This is a classic subject in the history of art and many painters and sculptors have represented it since the early Renaissance. In 1597 also Caravaggio used the theme in a particularly raw and realistic version, now preserved at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, in which he chose not too represent the two women escaping from Holofernes’ camp after the murder - as in tradition – but the bloody scene while the murder was being done.
The so-called Caravaggeschi, the artists who followed his pictorial revolution, represented the biblical subject with the same realistic features, thus influencing the 17th-century iconography linked to Judith and Holofernes.
Artemisia Gentileschi also painted the episode and later other two versions which are now preserved in Florence. The one preserved at the Palatine Gallery of Palazzo Pitti was made around 1618-1619 and it is closer to the traditional iconography, because it depicts Judith and her servant Abra as they flee the camp with Holofernes’ head in a basket. The version preserved at the Uffizi Galleries, on the other hand, is similar to the painting preserved in Naples, although better in quality.
In the work of Capodimonte, as well as in that of the Uffizi, Artemisia represents the most brutal and powerful moment of the story, when the young Jewish heroine kills Holofernes. The man is lying on the bed with his mouth and eyes open in terror, trying to free himself with his strong arms from the equally powerful grip of the two women. Abra, dressed in red, is above him, trying to block the general’s muscular arms with all her strength, while Judith holds Holofernes by his hair with her left hand, finding herself strength to cut the enemy’s throat with the knife she is holding in her right hand. The brutality of the scene is accentuated by the dramatic contrasts that dominate the canvas, such as the white sheets of the bed and general’s blood, spreading on the sheet, running down from the deep wound. The lateral light as well creates dramatic effects, illuminated the faces of the three figures and contrasting with the dark background, from which the two women emerge.
The naturalism and raw realism that pervades the work is certainly linked to Caravaggio and his influence, that Artemisia assimilated in Rome, where he painted the canvas around 1612. Judith’s arm still seems to be in a little stiff position, which indicates that her work is practically a citation of Caravaggio’s work, while Holofernes’ face appears to be a clear reference to the head of Goliath, from the work David and Goliath by her father Orazio Gentileschi. Critics have often interpreted Artemisia’s choice to portray the climax of the tragic episode with this dramatic ferocity related to the abuse she suffered at the hands of Agostino Tassi in 1611. It seems as if she wanted to redeem herself through Judith, from the violence and the consequences that the crime had on her as an artist and especially as a woman.
The painting became part of the collection of Capodimonte in 1827, when it was purchased from De Simone’s collection in Naples.
Artemisia was the daughter of a Tuscan artist, Orazio Gentileschi.
Her mother died when she was very young and she had her first artistic training in her father’s workshop, whose style represented the late Mannerism, and who had investigated Caravaggio’s revolutionary representation of light. Orazio gave her daughter very brief and strictly limited training in his workshop, where Artemisia practiced copying prints, drawings and replicas in his father’s study. In the 17th century painting and sculpting were hardly practiced by women, who were kept away from male artists to avoid contacts which would be considered indecent and not conforming to the morals of the time.
Artemisia’s first important work was Susanna and the Elders from circa 1610, where the young artist shows that she had learned well Caravaggio’s style and the representation of realistic figures - however, still very much linked to the classicist examples of Carracci – and contrasts of chiaroscuro, influenced by Orazio’s teachings.
The following year, in 1611, Gentileschi wanted to continue his daughter’s education for her great artistic talent. He hired his friend, a quadrature painter Agostino Tassi, to give Artemisia lessons in painting, teaching her perspective, in which he was specialized. Tassi’s difficult character did not worry Orazio, who entrusted his young daughter to him. However, Tassi abused her in her own home.
Artemisia immediately told her father the terrible gesture, which not even a reparatory marriage - a common solution used at the time in such cases - could have resolved, as in fact, Tassi was already married. Horace filed a case against the rapist, which was a tough test for Artemisia to pass. In fact, someone questioned the truthfulness of the young woman’s story at the trial, creating suspicion that she herself had actually consented at the time of the rape. Artemisia was repeatedly subjected to invasive examinations, both from physical and psychological point of view, as well as to an interrogation using torture called “tortura dei sibilli”, to be sure that she was telling the truth. This meant, that her thumbs were tied and slowly pressed more and more with an instrument until they were almost crushed and she risked losing her fingers.
She passed the terrible test and the trial ended with Tassi being sentenced, which, however, was never delivered. He was protected by powerful Romans and bribed testimonies who would spread false rumors about Artemisia and so Tassi continued his normal life and artistic activities in Rome.
It was also for this reason that Gentileschi left Rome and went to Florence after the trial, where she married a modest painter named Antonio Stiattesi, in a reparatory marriage. In this period Artemisia painted the first version of the subject that would recur in her works, Judith Beheading Holofernes, preserved today at the museum of Capodimonte, characterized by raw and bloodthirsty realism and violent representation of the murder. Artemisia achieve a great success in Florence. The court of Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici, to whom she was introduced by her uncle Aurelio Lomi, brought her important commissions and close to famous figures such as Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo Buonarroti. In 1616 she became the first woman to be admitted to the prestigious Academy of Drawing Arts. In Florence Artemisia painted another version of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1618-1619), preserved today at the Galleria Palatina of Palazzo Pitti and the famous Judith Beheading Holofernes of the Uffizi Galleries.
In 1620 Artemisia returned to Rome, forced to face her unhappy marriage and disastrous economic situation, worsen by the birth of her four children. In Rome she was free from her demanding father and she was able to distinguish herself in modern artistic and cultural circles and she met other Caravaggesque painters, such and French Simon Vouet, José de Ribera, Antiveduto Gramatica and Massimo Stanzione.
Between 1627 and 1630 Artemisia moved to Venice, then perhaps to Genoa, where her father Orazio was staying. In 1630 she went to Naples, which she left for a brief stay in England, at the court of King Charles I, where she met her father who had moved to England. Artemisia died in Naples in 1653, where she had painted important works such as the three canvases for the cathedral of Pozzuoli, dedicated to Saint Proculus, several self-portraits and where she had close relationships with important active artists in the city at the time, some of which she had already met in Rome, such as Ribera and Stanzione.
The collection of Capodimonte has the origins in the refined and elegant collection of the Farnese family. The first assemblage was formed in 1534 thanks to the initiative of Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589) and Pope Paul III, both interested in ancient objects (conserved today in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples) and the most important artists of the period.
In 1734 Charles III of Spain took the throne and inherited mother Elisabetta Farnese’s collection which was moved from Rome to Parma during the 18th century. In this occasion he felt the need to find a suitable location for the collection.
The construction of the Capodimonte building on the hill started in 1738 and it was used both as a residence and as a gallery. The place was first only visited by famous persons, such as Johann Winckelmann, Antonio Canova and Marquis de Sade.
The museum was inaugurated in 1957, thanks to the insistence of Ferdinando Bologna Raffaello Causa, opening to the public extensive collection of 2900 paintings, 150 sculptures, 17700 objects of decorative art, 26000 drawings, extended over 12000 square meters and divided into 114 rooms.
During the 18th century, the collection was enriched with the works commissioned by the sovereigns of the Bourbon family, but the lootings by French troops in 1799 marked the beginning of decline as its function as a museum.
In the 19th century the building was mostly used as a residence. French general Joachim Murat lived in the building with his wife and they brought new furnishing and interior decorations to Capodimonte.
Only after the arrival of the Savoys and thanks to Annibale Sacco, the new era of the museum started: the art objects which were spread in various residences of the Bourbon family were collected and moved to Capodimonte and there was a new attention to contemporary figurative production of art.
For this reason, there are two main groups in the collection. The Farnese collection includes the portraits of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Giorgio Vasari and Andrea del Sarto by Raphael, portrait of Bernardo de’ Rossi by Lorenzo Lotto, portraits of Paul III and Paul III with his Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese and Danae by Titian, Portrait of Antea by Parmigianino and the cartoons by Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and pictorial cycles of Carracci, donated in 1600 by Fulvio Orsini. The second collection includes the historical pieces of Neapolitan art from circa 1200 to 1700. Among them are the works by Simone Martini and Colantonio’s St. Jerome, an example of the lively and rich Aragon period, and the works of foreign influence such as Pinturicchio’s Assumption of the Virgin. The 17th century was considered as the golden era of Neapolitan art, influenced by the works of Caravaggio and his followers. From this era there are Caravaggio’s Flagellation from 1606-1607, Ribera’s Drunken Silenus, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes and Mattia Preti’s St. Sebastian.
The current layout of the museum is a result of the series of restorations in the 1980s’ and 1990s’ which determined the division of the collection onto three floors. The ground floor includes the educational rooms, the mezzanine floor holds the department of drawings and prints, the Farnese collection, the Borgia collection and the royal apartment are in the first floor and finally on the second floor the Neapolitan gallery, the D’Avalos collection, the 19th century gallery and the photographic gallery.