The Medici family came into prominence in 1434, after Cosimo de’ Medici returned from exile and with the decline of the previously powerful Albizzi family. They served as de facto rulers of Florence from 1434 to 1494, when they were expelled from the city again. One of the wealthiest families in Italy, the Medicis were famous for their patronage of the arts, through their support of artists such as Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Fra Angelico, and Donatello. Cosimo did not have a court, and no salaried artists until the end of the fifteenth century.[i] Despite this, the Medici family maintained its power through it’s supporters and through clever manipulation of republican processes, as opposed to legal authority.[ii] Florence took great pride in upholding republican ideals of independence and self-government, and had a signoria elected by the people. However, the signoria ultimately became puppets in the hands of the Medici, who had to be cautious and subtle in their efforts to maintain power as they were not established rulers.[iii] Their chosen strategy was to make use of republican imagery to subvert any charges of tyranny against them. The family thus made use of art to create powerful visual symbols, and imbued the imagery with republican values and opinions about themselves which they wanted to project to the citizens. The Medici used artistic patronage to create an identity for themselves as just, moral leaders by masking their political ambitions with religious and moral themes.[iv] Donatello’s sculptures of David and Judith and Holofernes were a part of this political propaganda. Through an examination of their setting, inscriptions, the religious and political connotations of the Biblical figures, and the sculptures’ emphasis on justice, the Medici family’s calculated attempt to give their rule the appearance of legitimacy can be effectively brought out.
Donatello’s bronze statue of David was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici for the Palazzo Medici. The dating of the statue remains unclear, the suggested dates for it’s creation being between the 1420s and 1460s, with the earliest mention of it in a manuscript describing Lorenzo de’ Medici’s wedding to Clarice Orsini in 1466.[v] The statue depicts a young, triumphant David immediately after his battle with the Philistine warrior Goliath, whom he struck with a slingshot and then beheaded- an episode from 1 Samuel 17.[vi] David is depicted as standing with one foot on the severed head and sword in hand, wearing only a shepherd’s cap covered with laurel leaves, and boots. David’s face suggests a moment of contemplation. and his physique is ambiguously effeminate, distinguishing it from other representations of David including Donatello’s own marble David commissioned in 1408.
Judith and Holofernes was also commissioned by Cosimo or Piero de’ Medici and created in bronze between the late 1450s or early 1460s.[vii] The sculpture draws from a Biblical story in the deuterocanonical Book of Judith, depicting Judith slaying the Assyrian general Holofernes after charming him with her beauty and getting him drunk, thereby saving her town of Bethulia from the threat of Assyrian conquest. Judith is shown to be straddling Holofernes’ bare chest , pinning his wrist down with her foot, and grasping his hair tightly as she holds his sword high in her right hand- all with an expression of unsettling calm. The contortion of Holofernes’ neck indicates that he has already been struck once, and Judith is about to deliver the second blow to sever his head.[viii]
Besides the similarity of the material used and the depiction of Biblical characters in both, the two sculptures are linked by their setting in the Medici palace. Before they were installed in the Palazzo, the only other instance of David and Judith appearing close to each other was in Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise.[ix] Both statues were displayed in public spaces of the palace, namely, the courtyard and the garden. The David was placed on a high base in the courtyard, which was visible even from the street as it was in front of the palace’s main entrance. This opened out to the main path from San Marco which the procession of the Confraternity of the Magi took, during the Feast of the Epiphany- a celebration the Medici closely associated themselves with.[x] The garden, located behind the courtyard, housed the Judith and Holofernes. Both sculptures could therefore be accessed by all, as the courtyard was open to visitors, and the garden to invited guests.[xi] The placement of the David and Judith and Holofernes within the base of Medici power and in view of the public brings out the intention of making them symbols of Medici rule in Florence for all.
When dealing with the anti-tyrannical connotations of both the statues, it is important to note the similarity in their respective inscriptions. Christine M.Sperling connects the two inscriptions by mentioning that they accompanied each other in the Riccardiana Manuscript.[xii]The bronze David once had the following inscription with it- “The victor is whoever defends the fatherland. God crushes the wrath of an enormous foe. Behond! A boy overcame a great tyrant. Conquer, o citizens!”[xiii] This inscription is similar to that of the earlier marble David by Donatello, whose inscription read- “To those who bravely fight for the fatherland god will offer victory even against the most terrible foes.”[xiv] Sperling mentions that the lines were taken from a poem by Filfelfo, who wished to regain the favour of the Medicis through it. The inscription evidently stresses on and justifies the need for people to rise against tyranny,with David here acting as the defender of the “fatherland” and of liberty, and even directly incites the citizens of Florence to do so. Moreover, the reference to the marble David, which was present in the Palazzo Della Signoria at the time, connected the Medici with the Florentine republican government and showed an accordance with their ideals.[xv]
Similarly, the inscription to Judith and Holofernes was as follows- “Kingdoms fall through luxury, cities rise through virtue; behold the neck of pride severed by humility.” In the Book of Judith 9:9-11, Judith prays to God saying- “Send your fury on their heads,” and “Break their pride by a woman’s hand.” The neck is also associated with pride in the writings of St.Augustine, who mentioned “stiff-neckedness” when speaking about his own pride, as well as by Dante, who in Purgatory speaks about the proud being unable to raise their necks because of the weight of heavy boulders.[xvi] The horses on the medallion around Holofernes’ neck have also been commonly interpreted as representing pride.[xvii]Moreover, the first two lines are in accord with the Florentine humanists’ belief that the increase of private luxury was inimical to public virtue, and that true nobility resided in virtue itself.[xviii] The Medici might have wanted to project themselves as true upholders of virtue, despite their contradictory position as one of the wealthiest families in Italy. The sculpture also bore a second inscription- “The salvation of the state, Piero de’ Medici son of Cosimo dedicated this statue of a woman both to liberty and to fortitude, whereby the citizens with unvanquished and constant heart might return to the republic.” This inscription overtly connects Judith and Holofernes to contemporary Florence in order “to strengthen this Medicean assertion of their position as a dynasty with a symbiotic relationship with the commonwealth of the city at large.”[xix]
David and Judith and Holofernes, along with their respective inscriptions, would carry certain political and historical resonances for the Florentine public. Allie Terry traces the changes of the beheading motif in Florence- changes which are paralleled by Medici personal and political history. The decapitations depicted in the sculptures as well as their inscriptions contain references to the Albizzi coup of 1433-34, which had resulted in the Medici being exiled from Florence. The rampant problem of factionalism which had led to the rise of Albizzi power became the reason for their downfall and the exile of Rinaldo Albizzi with the return of the Medici to Florence in November 1434. Terry also mentions that decapitation imagery rose in Medici art commissions after their return from exile. The new sculptures thus served to emphasize the changing position of the Medici in Florence. In a 1976 article, Horst Janson placed David in the context of the conflict between the Florentines and the Visconti of Milan which raged in the 1420s, with Goliath’s head representing the Visconti.[xx] Though both statues paint the Medici as the right rulers for Florence through their defence of liberty, the inscription to Judith and Holofernes in particular has overt political connotations. In his Istorie fiorentine, Giovanni Cavalcanti discusses the conflict between the Albizzi and the Medici, and mentions that Florence “abounded with men filled with pride”, among whom was Rinaldo Albizzi. Pride was identified as a cause of communal unrest in Dante as well, and the Judith sculpture could this be seen as representing the fall of the Albizzi because of Rinaldo’s pride.[xxi] At the same time, it celebrated the virtue of the Medici rule from 1434, thus utilising the sculpture for both self-aggrandizement and to bring in resonances of political history.
Terry also contends that the decapitation imagery alluded to the beheading of St John the Baptist, as the officials who caused the disturbances were elected on 29th August- the day of the feast of San Giovanni Decollato and the day John the Baptist was decapitated. In his History of Tuscany, Francisco Guicciardini mentioned that the Florentines interpreted the conflict as a result of them having angered their patron saint by disrespecting his feast day and failing to protect the Medici. The Medici’s took this opportunity to devote themselves to the head of John the Baptist, which was the most notable aspect of his martyrdom. The head was a prized relic and Cosimo led an attempt to steal it from the church of San Silvestro in Capite.
After procuring the head, dramatised re-enactments of the beheading of St John the Baptist became a part of the festal celebrations on 29th August, and the Medici closely associated themselves with the celebration. In addition, they also associated themselves with Epiphany rituals of the cult of the Magi in Florence, and sponsored the images used in the rituals, for example, the climactic moment of Herod’s slaughter in the liturgical plays. As mentioned earlier, the procession would cross the main entrance of the Palazzo Medici on their way to the cathedral, thus enabling a full view of the David. The Medici thus slowly wrought an indirect association between themselves and the beheading of St John the Baptist (also seen in the frescoes in the church of San Marco), and with the inclusion of theatrical representations of the beheading, the festal celebration came to be associated with a celebration of Medici power within the city. The commissioning of the David and Judith and Holofernes thus alluded to a visual rhetoric of decapitation and political friction which the Florentines would have grasped.[xxii] Sarah Blake McHam also adds that the sculptures would make the more educated, elite citizens recall the bronze statues of the Athenian Tyrannicides group depicting Harmodios and Aristogeiton- heroes who, according to Pliny, were symbols of Athenian democracy. She adds that contemporary Florence would recall two famous tyrannicides in ancient history- the attempt to murder Hippias, which was believed to have established democracy in the west, as well as the assassination of Julius Caesar, which was seen by some as treachery, but by many, like Boccaccio, as justified tyrannicide.[xxiii] Thus the Medici could promote themselves as defenders of democracy and liberty when Donatello’s statues were seen in this context- ideals which were central to the republicanism in Florence at the time.
The selection of David and Judith in particular as symbols for Medici power is significant. They are both Jewish saviours from the Old Testament who conquer evil forces. Their respective stories represent the victory of the weak over the strong. In keeping with his position in the Old Testament, David was usually depicted as a king, but Donatello introduces a change by depicting David as a naked youth. In antiquity, nudity was used to depict gods and heroes and Donatello’s David appears to recall such heroism in his moment of victory over the tyranny and injustice represented by the head of Goliath.[xxiv] The youthfulness of David is emphasized by his physique- he does not appear strong enough to hold a heavy sword and defeat the formidable Goliath. This stresses that it was divine intervention which caused David’s victory and not David himself.[xxv] In the story of Judith as well, it is her prayer to God which gives her the power to overcome Holofernes. Divine backing in both cases seems to hint that the Medici too wanted to portray themselves as agents of good aligned with divine principles and perhaps backed by divine sanction.
Judith was interpreted in the medieval period as a “moral, religious, and political heroine.”[xxvi] In Christian thought, her triumph over Holofernes was seen as a victory of virtue. Most importantly, she was seen as an epitome of humility and chastity, which conquers the pride and licentiousness Holofernes represents.[xxvii] Her humility is already mentioned in the first inscription. The Medici also wished to associate themselves with this humility, which would allow them to assume a moral position above that of their enemies. Judith’s chastity is brought out by her demure and sober attire, in contrast to Holofernes’ semi-nakedness. The abundance of cloth surrounding her body does not sexualise her figure, in contrast to Holofernes’ plentiful hair which she is seen grabbing, which was a marker for sexual virility at the time.[xxviii] The monk Hrabanus Maurus saw Judith as a model of prudence by citing Jerom’s preface to the Book of Judith.[xxix] Thus through the image of Judith, the Medici wished to promote themselves as humble, prudent and virtuous rulers while simultaneously accusing their enemies of being morally depraved and crude.[xxx]
An important aspect of the Florentine republic was the stress on justice. Civic humanists stressed on maintaining justice and liberty in order to become virtuous individuals- an essential quality for one in charge of a republic. One was advised to adhere to Cicero’s theory of virtue in the De Inventione and De re publica, where Cicero explained that virtue consisted of four parts, or four cardinal virtues- justice (justitia), prudence (prudentia), fortitude (fortitudio), and temperance (temperanzia). Of the four virtues, justice and prudence were given the most importance.[xxxi] The four virtues were represented in paintings, where they were often accompanied by the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
Justice would also be represented in depictions of archangel weighing souls or wielding a sword to ward off Satan’s dragon.
Artistic representations of justice were very much accessible at the time, and was utilised by governments who wished to legitimise their rule.[xxxii] The Medici too employed the David and Judith and Holofernes sculptures as a part of their visual propaganda to emphasize that they were just rulers.
The associations of the beheading sculptures with the decapitation of St John the Baptist as discussed previously served to re-iterate the injustice of the beheading by Salome, and in connection, the injustice of the Medici exile of 1433-34, simultaneously encouraging devotion to the saint and support to the political agenda of the Medicis. Dontello’s statues invert the association of beheading with injustice and instead connect decapitation with liberty through the combined use of suggestive imagery and inscriptions. The re-enactment of the saint’s martyrdom also took place at the site of the gallows, where criminal executions took place, thus strengthening the connection of the decapitations with justice.[xxxiii] Both David and Judith are shown holding swords. This would be reminiscent of the sword held by Lady Justice, symbolizing punishment.
This obvious visual link to justice would justify the actions of both the figures. Judith as representative of justice would be further asserted when taken in the context of her as a symbol for the Florentine republic, which was commonly envisioned as a woman.[xxxiv] The Medici thus tried to craft an image of themselves as ideal, virtuous republican rulers for whom justice was of utmost importance in their political outlook.
The political propaganda of the Medici discussed brings us to the question of political opposition they faced at the time and why they had to manipulate art to convey their virtue, justice, and agreement with republican ideals. Despite their calculated efforts to portray themselves as virtuous propagators of anti-tyrannical beliefs and libertas, there were a number of charges of tyranny laid against the Medici which caused them to look for ways to assert their leadership as just. The accusations started as early as 1440, by Giovanni Cavalcanti, who wrote that he believed a tyrannical regime would overcome the constitutional government of Florence when speaking of the Medici rule.[xxxv] He voiced his disapproval of the manipulations of the 1444 elections by the Medici. Rinuccini discussed the tyranny of the Medicis three decades later in his De libertate. He spoke about the violation of liberty and republican institutions by the Medici, and called Lorenzo de’ Medici a “tyrant of Florence.”[xxxvi] The Dominican Savanarola also vehemently criticised Medici rule as being tyrannical and ungodly and through his sermons, tried to inspire citizens to rise against immorality and injustice represented by the Medici.[xxxvii] The Medici were well aware of the charges levelled against them, and Cosimo de’ Medici had tried to distance himself from the sectarian behaviour the Florentines saw as being against the liberty the city valued.[xxxviii] The Medicis retaliated to the accusations against them by commissioning the David and Judith and Holofernes which tried to assert their love of liberty and justice in an environment charged with dissent and opposition.
The Medici were exiled due to popular revolts in 1494, following which the David was moved to the courtyard of the Palazzo della Signoria. Judith and Holoferes too was seized and placed on the platform which was once attached to the west side of the Palazzo della Signoria. It’s inscription was effaced and replaced with a new one- “An exemplar of the public good. The citizens installed it here in 1495.” The new inscription implied the participation of all the citizens in its placement, as well as reiterating the belief that Judith was most importantly a defender of the well-being of the city of Florence.[xxxix]
Thus the function of the statues the Medici had used to insist on their humble service to the republic was inverted. Placed in the site of power of the new government, the David and Judith and Holofernes now exemplified civic duty and became symbols of Medici despotism and fraudulence. The agents of God had overcome the forces of evil now associated with the Medici family, and established divine sanction behind republican ideals. The removal of the sculptures from the Medici palace and the effacement of the inscription recalls the practice of damnatio memoriae[xl], where public works commissioned by a traitor or previous ruler would be destroyed so as to remove it from public memory. In this case, the earlier symbols of Medici power were altered to fit the new government and highlight it’s power over the forces of hypocrisy and injustice. The works which were intended to glorify and legitimise the rule of the Medici in Florence thus ironically became symbols of their scheming, tyranny, and defeat by the republican government.
[i] Caroline Elam, “Art and Diplomacy in Renaissance Florence,” RSA Journal 5387 (1988) 814.
[ii] N. Rubinstein, The Government of Florence under the Medici, 1434-94, (Oxford, 1966)
[iii] Caroline Elam, “Art and Diplomacy in Renaissance Florence”, RSA Journal 5387 (1988) 814.
[iv] Sarah Blake McHam, “Donatello’s Bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence”, The Art Bulletin , 1 (2001) 43.
[v] C M Sperling, “Donatello’s Bronze “David” and the Demands of Medici Politics”, The Burlington Magazine, 134 (1992) 218.
[vi] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+17, 17 November, 2015.
[vii] McHam, “Donatello’s Bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence”, 33.
[viii] Allie Terry, “Donatello’s Decapitations and the Rhetoric of Beheading in Medicean Florence”, Renaissance Studies, 5 (2009) 613.
[ix] Caoimhin de Bhailis, “A Reappraisal of Donatello’s Bronze Judith and Holofernes” Celtic Studies and Social Sciences (online) 9.
[x] Ibid, 7.
[xi] McHam, “Donatello’s Bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence”, 32.
[xii] Sperling, , “Donatello’s Bronze “David” and the Demands of Medici Politics”, 219.
[xiii] Roger J.Crum, “Donatello’s bronze “David” and the question of foreign versus domestic tyranny”, Renaissance Studies, 10 (1996) 441.
[xiv] McHam, “Donatello’s Bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence”, 34.
[xv] Ibid, 34.
[xvi] Roger J. Crum, “Severing the Neck of Pride: Donatello’s “Judith and Holofernes” and the Recollection of Albizzi Shame in Medicean Florence”, Artibus et Historiae, 44 (2001) 24.
[xvii] Ibid, 27.
[xviii] Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 1 (Cambridge, 1978) 43.
[xix] Caoimhin de Bhailis, “A Reappraisal of Donatello’s Bronze Judith and Holofernes”, 10.
[xx] Sperling, “Donatello’s Bronze “David” and the Demands of Medici Politics” , 221.
[xxi] Crum, “Severing the Neck of Pride: Donatello’s “Judith and Holofernes” and the Recollection of Albizzi Shame in Medicean Florence”, 26.
[xxii] Allie Terry, “Donatello’s Decapitations and the Rhetoric of Beheading in Medicean Florence”, 616-627.
[xxiii] McHam, “Donatello’s Bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence”, 6-8.
[xxiv] http://www.italianrenaissance.org/donatellos-david/, 19 November, 2015.
[xxvi] McHam ,“Donatello’s Bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence”, 35.
[xxvii] Ibid, 35.
[xxviii] Rebecca Proppe, “Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes: a Symbol of Tyranny and Virtue in Renaissance Florence”, Concordia Undergraduate Journal of Art History, 11 (2015) 8.
[xxix] Sarah Blake McHam, “Donatello’s Judith as an Emblem of God’s Chosen People”, The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines [online], ed. Kevin R Brine, Elena Ciletti, and Henrike Lahnemann (2010).
[xxx] Reid, Jane Davidson, “The True Judith,” Art Journal 4 (1969): 378.
[xxxi] http://www2.idehist.uu.se/distans/ilmh/Ren/civic-virtue.htm, 19 November, 2015.
[xxxii] Judith Resnik and Dennis E. Curtis, “Representing Justice: From Renaissance Iconography to Twenty-First-Century Courthouses”, Faculty Scholarship Series 693 (2007), 144-145.
[xxxiii] Allie Terry, “Donatello’s Decapitations and the Rhetoric of Beheading in Medicean Florence”, 630.
[xxxiv] Randolph, Engaging Symbols, 258.
[xxxv] G. Cavalcanti, Istorie fiorentine, ed. F. Polidori (Florence, 1838 and 1839), 29-30.
[xxxvi] Crum, “Donatello’s Bronze “David” and the Demands of Medici Politics” , 445.
[xxxvii] McHam, , “Donatello’s Judith as an Emblem of God’s Chosen People”
[xxxviii] Crum, “Donatello’s Bronze “David” and the Demands of Medici Politics”, 448.
[xxxix] McHam, “Donatello’s Judith as an Emblem of God’s Chosen People”
[xl] Proppe, , “Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes: a Symbol of Tyranny and Virtue in Renaissance Florence”, 11.
Crum,Roger J. “Donatello’s bronze “David” and the question of foreign versus domestic tyranny”, Renaissance Studies, 10 (1996) 440-450.
Crum, Roger J. “Severing the Neck of Pride: Donatello’s “Judith and Holofernes” and the Recollection of Albizzi Shame in Medicean Florence”, Artibus et Historiae, 44 (2001) 23-29.
De Bhailis,Caoimhin. “A Reappraisal of Donatello’s Bronze Judith and Holofernes” Online Postgraduate Journal of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences (2014) 6-16.
Elam,Caroline. “Art and Diplomacy in Renaissance Florence,” RSA Journal 5387 (1988) 813-826.
McHam, Sarah Blake. “Donatello’s Bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence”, The Art Bulletin , 1 (2001) 32-47.
McHam, Sarah Blake. “Donatello’s Judith as an Emblem of God’s Chosen People”, The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines [online], edited by Kevin R Brine, Elena Ciletti, and Henrike Lahnemann (Cambridge,2010) 307-324.
Proppe, Rebecca. “Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes: a Symbol of Tyranny and Virtue in Renaissance Florence”, Concordia Undergraduate Journal of Art History, 11 (2015) 15-26.
Randolph. Adrian W.B. Engaging Symbols. London: Yale University Press , 2002.
Resnik, Judith and Curtis,Dennis E. “Representing Justice: From Renaissance Iconography to Twenty-First-Century Courthouses”, Faculty Scholarship Series 693 (2007), 139-183.
Rubinstein,N. The Government of Florence under the Medici, 1434-94. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1966.
Skinner, Quentin. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Sperling, C.M. “Donatello’s Bronze “David” and the Demands of Medici Politics”, The Burlington Magazine, 134 (1992) 218-224.
Terry, Allie. “Donatello’s Decapitations and the Rhetoric of Beheading in Medicean Florence”, Renaissance Studies, 5 (2009) 613.