Our agenda for this trip to Venice may have been light but it wasn’t actually empty. True, our plan for the day was to wander about and see the splendors of Carnivale, but we figured we might as well have directions to wander in rather than just licking our thumbs and seeing which way the wind was blowing. To that end, we had a plan for an early lunch, then the Galleria Accademia (more or less an art gallery) before bouncing towards Ground Zero, aka Piazza San Marco. (Why do some places get names in Italian, while others are translated? Chi puo ‘dirlo?) Not a heavy itinerary but in all likelihood a good one.
We can occasionally be guilty of burying the lede, so let’s start off with the biggest news: the Galleria Accademia had two, count ’em two, Judiths! It’s always exciting when… hang on… Lisa just asked me if our readers already know why we care about the story of Judith and Holofernes. “Of course they do!”, I replied, but the worm of doubt started nibbling away and I hit the search function. Sure enough, while we’ve mentioned it a couple of times, we have yet to provide any context for our Judith love. Welp, high time we fix that!
The story of Judith, in very broad strokes, describes the Jewish widow Judith, who saves Israel from invasion by ingratiating herself to the Assyrian general Holofernes. Holding some measure of trust in the Assyrian camp, she is able to gain access to his tent one night when he lay sleeping and inebriated. She decapitates him and then returns to her people, displaying his head as proof of the deed. The Assyrian army, leaderless, disperses and Israel is saved. (Don’t peer at the details to closely, that’s not the point right now.) This story has been a popular one for artists to depict for many hundreds of years. Frequently, the image presented will be of Judith in the act of sawing Holofernes’ head off, with a maid waiting with a sack to hold the royal noggin. If you’re wondering if you’ve found a Judith in the wild, the clues to look for are: woman with sword, woman probably dressed as a peasant or servant and holding a sack, a man passed out in bed, maybe a man missing a head, a woman holding a head, or a servant holding a sack with a head in it. There are many variants, and you may need to eliminate Salome with the head of John the Baptist as a source for the painting you’re looking at (in that case there will be a woman and a head, but typically the head is long-since removed from a body and the woman has nothing to do with physically removing the sainted pate, which may or may not be resting on a plate. A pate plate. heh.)
Ok, so that’s what “a Judith” is, but why do we care especially? Set the wayback machine to 2014. The place: Florence. We are still developing what our idea of a good trip is, but we know we’re enjoying art museums a whole lot and we’re trying to educate ourselves more about art in general. We participated in a Context tour of the Uffizi Galleries; this is not what you’d call the “budget option” but Context tours have in our experience been uniformly excellent so we occasionally treat ourselves. This Uffizi tour was particularly fine; the guide did an excellent job of using our time to highlight some true wonders of the art world while also “footnoting” (so to speak) other locations in the museum that we wouldn’t have get to but would be worth our exploring on our own time. It was in one of these interstitial moments, passing between treasures, that we slipped past Artemesia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” and were just gobsmacked. (Full disclosure: we are not in complete agreement as to which Judith is the first we actually saw. That’s fine, disagreement is a part of life’s rich tapestry.) There’s a whole other rabbit hole we could go down about Artemesia (a rare female artist of note from the 1600s whose name and reputation has been preserved) and the feminist underpinnings of this painting, but even keeping it at the 10,000′ view the Judith representations stand out as rare cases of a woman in control of her situation in this (or basically any? woo patriarchy) era. When you go to a lot of museums and see a lot of Jesuses and Jesus-related art, and the women are almost always either trophies to be won or temptresses to be scorned, a strong woman getting #*&@ done really stands out.
Also, there’s an old trope that gets explained in a lot of different ways, but basically – you know how you never see bears anywhere, but then somebody points out a bear in a picture or an advertisement or whatever, and suddenly all you see anywhere are bears? Judith has been like that; once we cottoned to her, she’s surprisingly popular. And so, as a little game that we play just between ourselves, finding a Judith becomes kind of like a drinking game. We don’t go looking for Judiths, but when we find them we get excited, and if we are separated we run to find the other. It’s fun, and they’re almost always really good portrayals.
Good lord, so where was I? RIGHT. We went to the Galleria Accademia in Venice, which is a lovely building, typically very old (it dates from 1756) but refurbished and added on to fairly recently. They highlight work done in Venice and have an extensive collection of Hieronymus Bosch which was, I think, our first chance to put our noses up close to his work; it’s as weird as everybody says. Then again, there was a preponderance of floating baby heads in this collection (Check the image at the top of this post; pretty sure it’s a medieval/renaissance depiction of cherubim, but still…) so Bosch felt right at home.
It was towards the end of our visit to the Galleria when we got into the new-built portion of the museum, and it seemed this is there the collection branched out from work that would have been purpose-made for religious display (e.g. in a church or cathedral) and that’s when Judith appeared. We almost passed by both of them without catching what they were. Believe it or not, the first one shown here is relatively subtle for a Judith painting, what with the head being neatly detached, the sword not being soaked in blood, and Judith herself being pretty calm about the whole thing. The second Judith, by Guilia Lama, we really didn’t catch was her until we read the card under the painting; as far as either of us can remember this is as easy as Holofernes has ever gotten off in one of these paintings; apparently she (Judith) is still checking in with the big ‘G’ to make sure that this is all copacetic.
Contented with the museum, we spent the rest of the day strolling the warrens of the city, bumping into innumerable clusters of lavishly costumed folk. Our meals this day were pleasant but unmemorable, and recalling the details doesn’t feel justified after the novel you were just presented with. Our next day was even more casual, so we’ll be sure to inundate you with costumes, shopping, and food next time.