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Judith with the Head of Holofernes, n.d.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, n.d. Anonymous, after Cristofano Allori (157

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, n.d. Anonymous, after Cristofano Allori (1577-1621).
Oil on canvas, 54 7/8 x 45 5/8 in. Athenæum purchase, 1838.

This painting depicts a story from the Old Testament Book of Judith, in which Judith herself, a pious widow, took charge when her city was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar’s army under General Holofernes. With a faithful servant, Judith entered Holofernes’s camp at night, besotted him with drink and her beauty, and decapitated him while he slept. She then departed, placing his head on a pike on her city wall so that his army might awake to this gruesome sight. Because this is a story with dramatic scenes, artists have been drawn to it for centuries, and many versions show the scene of the decapitation or of Judith or her servant bearing the head, either exposed or in a sack. In the early seventeenth century, Cristofano Allori painted a version made more dramatic by the models he used. His mistress, La Mazzafirra, posed for the splendidly dressed Judith. He chose La Mazzafirra’s mother to play the servant, and he portrayed himself as the severed head of Holofernes clasped tightly by the hair in Judith’s hand.[1]

Not only are there many artistic representations of Judith, but there are also many copies of Allori’s Judith, some executed by himself and held by the Liechtenstein Collections, and in the Pitti Palace in Florence, where there was a special exhibition of Allori in 1984.[2] The Athenæum acquired its Judith with the Head of Holofernesin 1838 in a group of eight other paintings[3] bought from a Count Francesco Celestini, who came with what seemed to be impeccable credentials. The Library’s Fine Arts Committee reported in January 1839 that a collection of paintings not often available in the United States had been offered for sale and judged worthy “by gentlemen best qualified to judge in the matter”; however, the price seemed too dear. Count Celestini then lowered his price, and the paintings were acquired for $4,000, paid in four installments (without interest) derived from proceeds from the Athenæum’s annual exhibitions.

Judithwas shown twenty-eight times between 1839 and 1866, and in 1876 deposited with many other paintings at the newly founded Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was returned to the Athenæum with three other paintings in 1905, and the Fine Arts Committee decided to store it in the basement and sell its frame. Clearly, tastes had changed, and it remained in storage until it was displayed in “A Climate for Art” at the Athenæum in 1980, by which time it was no longer considered to have been painted by Allori and its date of creation was therefore also in question.[4] Judith, while not from Allori’s hand, could be a seventeenth-century copy, most similar to the one in the Duke of Alba’s collection in Madrid.[5] It was also discovered that there was no Count Francesco Celestini and no family collection or villa in Florence.

Who had been the “gentlemen best qualified” who were duped by this Italian con artist? In New York, Celestini garnered trust and assistance from George G. White, an artist who wrote a pamphlet dated 1870 describing Count Celestini’s misfortunes, beginning with family litigation that robbed him of his beautiful Tuscan estate and brought him to the United States to sell one hundred paintings from his family’s collection.[6] A painting from the Celestini Collection appeared for sale at Clinton Hall in New York in 1840.[7]  White claimed that Samuel Morse and Washington Irving knew the family in Italy and tried to help the Count in New York and then in Boston, where Washington Allston attempted to assist him by raising a subscription to enable the Athenæum to purchase his paintings. That plan failed, however, and White recounted the actual purchase of nine paintings, after which Celestini took the rest to London, where he left them with an agent because a sudden illness forced his immediate return to the milder climate of Italy. White wrote more than thirty years after these events, which could explain discrepancies in chronology and the fact that no other evidence – no letters or diary entries – exist to corroborate that Morse or Irving knew the family in Italy. White claimed to have bought whatever paintings he could afford and made every effort to stay in touch with the Count. Count Celestini, however, did not return the courtesy.

 

Mary E. Warnement, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 192-194. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1] Miles Chappell, “Cristofano Allori,” in Dictionary of Art,ed. Jane Turner (New York: Macmillan, 1996), 673; Julia de Wolf Addison, The Art of the Pitti Palace (Boston: L.C. Page, 1904), 1:115.
[2] Miles Chappell, Cristofano Allori, 1577-1621 (Florence, Italy: Centro Di, 1984), 78-81; Reinhold Baumstark, Masterpieces from the Collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein, trans. Robert Erich Wolf (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1981), 56-57
[3] A “head of Christ,” two Vanderwert landscapes, a Boquet landscape, a Poussin landscape, a Zuccherelli landscape with figures, a Rembrandt self-portrait and a van Dyke portrait. The Rembrandt and van Dyke are also no longer attributed to them.
[4] Climate for Art (1980), 14.
[5] Memorandum re: Sydney J. Freedberg’s evaluation of Judith with Head of Holofernes, May 17, 1982; Letter from Miles Chappell to Jonathan Harding, November 1, 1983, BA archives.
[6] George G. White, Items in Relation to the Ancient Family of Celestini, of Florence, Italy, and to their Gallery of Paintings by Old Masters (1870), 1-8
[7] Apollo Association, Catalogue of the Sixth Exhibition at Clinton Hall (New York:  Samuel Adams, 1840), 7.