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The Sword of Judith

Kevin R. Brine
Elena Ciletti
Henrike Lähnemann

Music and Drama

22. Judith in the Italian Unification Process, 1800–1900

Paolo Bernardini

Texte intégral

  • 1 I wish to thank Elisa Bianco (Boston University) as well as Marian McHugh (Trinity College, Dublin (...)

1Note portant sur l'auteur*1

Judith Lore from the Eighteenth to the Nineteenth Century: From Individual to ”National” Hero

  • 2 Alberto Mario Banti, L’onore della nazione. Identità sessuali e violenza nel nazionalismo europeo (...)

2According to one of the major historians of the Risorgimento (the Italian unification process), the figure of Judith played only an ambiguous and marginal role among the vast number of heroines who shaped the cultural landscape of nineteenth-century Italy. This is true not only for Italian opera – the most important and popular form of cultural-political public art during the key decades (1830–1860) of Risorgimento – but also for melodrama, poetry, and the visual arts.2

  • 3 For a slightly different view of Judith in the Italian Risorgimento, see the essay by Alexandre Lh (...)

3My essay aims to answer some of the questions about Judith raised by Alberto M. Banti. Why was Judith only a marginal and ambiguous figure during this era, after having kept her identity more or less unshaken for centuries, maybe millennia? Why, while plenty of female heroes emerged from the past and from the literary imagination of contemporary authors, did Judith, the ”proto-heroine,” the embodiment of female courage and feminine agency, undergo such a marked decline?3

4In order to answer these questions, we have to take into account both ideological motifs and the evolution of the artistic genres, especially music. We will also dwell upon the eighteenth century as much as on the following one, so as to better bring into focus the original individualistic spirit of Judith, before her ”nationalization” (we will see what this was). Evolution in ideology and development in music are two elements that run in parallel and occasionally intertwine.

  • 4 One of the choruses of Verdi’s Nabucco became a sort of unofficial Italian national anthem, still (...)

5If we begin with music history, we can perceive first of all a dramatic decline of oratorio, chamber music, and in general of small ensembles by the first decades of the nineteenth century. This decline is due, inter alia, to the powerful rise of opera, a musical genre that requires large orchestras, a wide variety of singers (i.e., of characters), and a choir. Opera is the perfect genre for collective, ”national” actions, and was perceived as such by the public since its very beginnings in Italy where it was first created.4

6Artistic portrayals of Judith’s triumph from the Renaissance to the late Baroque and the end of the eighteenth century are often in the form of an oratorio or other cognate musical forms, which are characterized by a small orchestra, a limited number of singers and characters, a simple plot, and a strongly religious (Catholic) content, or at least a religious inspiration, as well as a religious pedagogical aim. If we look more closely at some examples among the leading ”Judiths” before the end of the eighteenth century, we find all these elements, often together with political metaphors, which relate the heroine to the lore of one or another major European power. However, while the eighteenth century was still a time of dynasties and dynastic kingdoms, so that heroes and heroines were basically at their service, the nineteenth century was the century of nations and nation-states (often fighting against established dynasties, as was the case with Italy, battling for independence against the Habsburgs and the Bourbons). In the nineteenth century, therefore, heroes had to have a strong connection to the nation, act according to its ”general will,” and be the forerunners, the very élite, of national revolts and revolutions. Judith acted on her own, in contradiction to the policy originally set by the leaders of her people. She thus could not fulfill the typical nineteenth-century ideal of a hero. This essay will illuminate this change in Judith’s status, beginning with a close look at the eighteenth-century model – a model that was later completely transformed.

The Last Phase of the Individual Heroine in the Age of the Enlightenment: Vivaldi and Cassetti, Mozart and Metastasio

  • 5 See Federico Barbierato, Politici e ateisti. Percorsi della miscredenza a Venezia tra Sei e Settec (...)

7Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans (1716) (RV 644) is the basis of eighteenth-century treatments of Judith, which were first and foremost musical ones, including the portrayals by Vivaldi and Mozart. Judith’s prominence in the visual arts began to decline in the eighteenth century, a process that continued into the nineteenth. Metastasio, whose text formed Mozart’s libretto, did not substantially change the treatment of the biblical heroine, which remained more or less the same until the end of the eighteenth century. A fine example of ”musica sacra vocale” (sacred vocal music), Juditha is one of the three oratorios composed by Vivaldi – quite a small portion of his immense production, which includes no fewer than 48 ”melodrammi.” As an ”oratorio latino bipartito,” at first glance it might appear to be a purely sacred composition. In the first two decades of the eighteenth century strong waves of heterodoxy, skepticism, and the first signs of deism and Enlightenment became visible in Venice, so that a fierce musical/poetical defense of Catholicism and of post-Tridentine orthodoxy, would have been neither unexpected nor unwelcome.5

8The Juditha triumphans belongs at least in part in this context, but its main aim is different. In the frontispiece of the libretto written for the Juditha by Giacomo Cassetti (1682–1757), a minor local poet (and sculptor), it is clearly indicated that this is a ”sacrum militare oratorium.” The two dimensions, the sacred and the military, are in no sense in contradiction to each other. This oratorio was quite probably composed to celebrate the last major victory of the Venetians against the Ottoman Turks, and the conquest of the island of Corfù in 1716. This was the last major military enterprise of Saint Mark’s Lion. Therefore, composers, painters, and poets did their best to celebrate it, probably aware, along with the local authorities and the Church, that this victory was bound to be the last for Venice. The Greek island remained a Venetian possession until the very end of the glorious republic in 1797. Here, Judith is Venice and Holofernes is the evil Sultan. Among the other characters, Abra (Judith’s elderly servant) represents the Christian Faith; Bethulia the Catholic Church; Ozias symbolizes the whole of the Christian flock. The oratorio was performed in one of the many Vene tian confraternities, that of the Ospedale della Pietà, in November. The Venetian army had defeated the Turks in August, thanks to its alliance with a state that was much more powerful at that time, the Holy Roman Empire, and which sent one of its best generals, Count Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg, to lead the armies, whose ranks were swelled by many local patriots. It is worth noting that in the following century the Habsburgs became the strongest enemies of the Italian patriots. Events had unfolded thus: the Turks had laid a long siege to Corfù, in retaliation against Venice. Back in 1687, the Serenissima Repubblica, under Doge Francesco Morosini, had conquered the Peloponnese, the called Morea. In 1715 the Turks had reconquered the territory; so that the Serenissima felt the urge to regain at least some of her provinces lost to the Turks, who were at the time as decadent as the old ”Italian” republic. From the historical perspective, the struggle at the then borders of the Ottoman empire may appear to anticipate the nationalist revolts of the first decades of the nineteenth century, when Greece became for the first time in its history an independent state. These revolts fueled a new nationalism that was Greek rather than Venetian, and which became mature only at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As for Judith, this was a clear use of the myth for political purposes – the Greek island became Venice, and Venice is embodied by Judith. It is also a clear indication of the holy nature of the figure of Judith, who by saving Venice is saving the whole of Christianity from the threat of the Ottomans. In fact, the Turks ceased to be a substantial threat in the Mediterranean after Lepanto (1571), and after the unfortunate siege of Vienna in 1683 they were also no longer a threat on land.

9The purpose of Vivaldi’s (or rather Cassetti’s) Juditha is not only to reinforce the notion that the western side is the true ”holy” part of the world; even more importantly, it is also to reinforce the link (which was quite shaken at that time) between Venice and the Church. In the spirit of the time, however, this work contains ambiguous, dark elements. Holofernes appears as a skilled seducer, almost a womanizer, able to strike all the right chords with Judith in a most sentimental fashion in order to try and seduce her. Yet his actions toward Judith are not those of a shrewd rapist. On the contrary, there are moments of almost feminine sensuality in his words, and in the scene where he tries to seduce Judith, the oboe and the organ create a sophisticated, erotic atmosphere. Judith resists, but she seems very close to succumbing. In Vivaldi’s work there is a surprisingly vast range of materials. Even today this material is continuing to prove fruitful: it has provided the anthem of a state yet to be born for a new party founded in 2008, the Partito Nazionale Veneto. At the same time, Vivaldi’s Juditha also suggests some of the reasons why the story of Judith would seem quite unfit to become a substantial part of the nineteenth-century founding myths of the Italian nation. Judith embodies a powerful mix of feminine virtue and of masculine violence, of deceit and honesty, of forbearance and sexual appeal – in short, a mix that would throw the mythmakers of nineteenth-century Italy into confusion.

10No major variations in the musical and literary treatment of Judith take place in Italy until Metastasio wrote La Betulia liberata, and more significantly Mozart wrote the music for it. Mozart’s music for Metastasio’s La Betulia liberata (K. 118) was written in 1771, when Mozart was 15 and living in Padova. Before approaching this text, however, we also need to consider the pre-history of the construction of unified Italy. All representations of Judith in the eighteenth century embodied a primarily religious idea connected both to the figure of Judith per se, and to her relationship with the Virgin Mary. At the same time, new elements that were anti-religious or simply not religious at all were foregrounded, such as the sensuality of the heroine, the themes of warfare and siege, and the literary attractiveness of the story. The plots of several versions differ substantially from the biblical narratives in Greek and Latin: new elements are introduced as always happens with contemporary treatments of biblical themes. The absence of a definitive urtext makes judgments about fidelity to a foundational rendering hypothetical, but it may well be that no single version of the story of Judith follows the original account literally. One might say that it is always violated.

11What is relevant for this essay, however, is the political meaning of Judith. She is primarily a solitary heroine who demonstrates that a woman, and a single woman, can be a) stronger than her people and b) able to defeat an entire army (who incidentally belongs to an entirely different people) acting with only a single accomplice. In any case, peoples or nations (to use an eighteenth-century concept, or more precisely, a concept entirely reshaped and reformulated in political terms in the eighteenth century) do not play any role in the Judith story. In fact, if we were to foreground the role of ”nations” in the story, this role would be a negative one. So, if we wish to interpret the myth politically, we can see that in the case of Cassetti and Vivaldi, Judith becomes the incarnation of Venice, while in the case of Metastasio and Mozart, she is probably the embodiment of Vienna.

12But can she be seen as the incarnation of a ”nation,” fighting for its freedom? This problem is at the core of my essay. Certainly, the individuality of Judith is strongly present in all the Baroque and Enlightenment representations of her. Judith as an individual, the liberation of Bethulia, the defeat of the threat, and the triumph of Israel are depicted in Metastasio once again as a private covenant, or an emergency clause of the covenant, which is signed by God on the one hand and by a single woman on the other. What God as well as Judith is aiming at is not the freedom and/or survival of a single woman, but that of an entire ”chosen” people, or at least of an entire city, Bethulia. The solitary nature of Judith’s deed is highlighted here even before it receives such treatment in literature or in the (rare) pictorial representations of Judith in the eighteenth century, and in the even rarer ones of the nineteenth. For instance, Metastasio depicts the Assyrians in a very lurid light, and the Jews are not much better. The story begins here with a long attack on the ”vergognosa viltà” (shameful cowardice) of the Jews, the chosen people. In fact, since the Assyrians are goyim – Gentiles, heathens – they are spared the invective; one of them, Achior, a prince who is close to Holofernes, converts to Judaism, and is saved (both in this world and in Heaven). At the end, the most important scene in the drama is Achior’s conversion, which is presented as a universal declaration of faith, with a teleological implication: the conversion of this heathen is an anticipation of the conversion of all mankind to Christianity. In much the same way, the martyrdom of John the Baptist, which can be considered a reversal of Judith’s tale, is the preparation for that of Christ, just as the baptism of John the Baptist was in preparation for that of Christ, and thus for the whole of mankind.

13In Metastasio’s version, the chosen people are full of uncertainty and, most of all, fear. The Assyrian army, in contrast, is quite strong and compact, but the description of its disarray when Holofernes’s corpse is discovered reveals enormous confusion and an army that has fallen prey to terror; the air is full of curses (”bestemmie”) and a real apocalypse is taking place. There is absolutely no space for any collective action in Metastasio’s work, and Mozart’s music is extremely focused upon Judith. The work is a triumph for the traditional Christian trinity of the virtues, ”Fede Speranza Carità” – faith, hope and divine love in the form of charity – that are the first protection against the seven (or eight) canonical vices. Metastasio’s text was used by several other composers until 1822, when his text, with the music of an unknown composer, was staged in Venice for the last time as far as we know, in the palace of the Morean family. It is likely that the music was composed by Salieri, whose version of the ”azione sacra” had been performed in Vienna the year before. But we are already in a different time, when the figure of Judith was undergoing a dramatic transformation into a decadent heroine.

Metamorphosis and Decline of Judith: The Italian Nineteenth Century

  • 6 See Alberto M. Banti, La nazione del Risorgimento. Parentela, santità e onore alle origini dell’It (...)

14The eighteenth century saw the triumph of the myth of Judith. This was mostly due to the heritage of the Baroque, the last sparks of a tale that is profoundly in tune with the culture of horror and sophistication typical of the seventeenth century – a culture that resurfaced in several forms both in the eighteenth century (the ”sublime” of Burke and Kant) and in the nineteenth (the horror stories of rape, murder, and mass killings, which have been studied by Alberto M. Banti).6

15Could Judith, however, as a very individualistic heroine, survive in the age of nations and nationalism(s)?

  • 7 See the provisional Paolo Bernardini, Elisa Bianco, ”Judith in the Italian Literature: A Comprehen (...)

16On the one hand it seems that she could, for we do find quite a few poets writing works devoted to Judith in a variety of genres, from poems to texts meant for music, albeit (at least for Italy) in a quantity (and quality) which is much inferior to that of the seventeenth, or the eighteenth centuries.7

  • 8 Other noteworthy works, such as that of Paolo Giacometti, are discussed in Alexandre Lhâa’s essay (...)

17On the other hand, however, these ”Judiths” found a far smaller audience in the nineteenth century, when the plot itself needed to be changed and adapted both to the new musical taste, ”il nuovo gusto musicale,” and, more particularly, to the new political climate, especially in Italy. The main problem was ”how to let the people, the nation, the collectivity, interact more positively on the scene, and to have a more positive role.” Also, the new vogue of the ”opera” had little in common with the ”azione sacra,” operetta and ”melodrama,” and a fortiori oratorio. It required more characters, as well as powerful collective characters, possibly acting patriotically and bravely. A typical example of the nineteenth-century patriotic nationalist opera is Verdi’s Aida, where in contrast to the situation depicted in the tale of Judith, the Jews act bravely and are longing and fighting for freedom. Thus, the enslaved, exiled Jews of Aida became an ideal for the Italian patriots who, although scattered among many groups with different political ideas and agendas, shared the collective goal of the liberation, and later on, unification of Italy. Metastasio, with all his religiosity and individualism, went slowly but inexorably out of fashion. Instead several minor authors created quite different treatments of Judith.8

  • 9 See Giorgio Mangini, ”Betulia liberata e La morte di Oloferne. Momenti di drammaturgia musicale ne (...)

18Pietro Guglielmi (1727–1804) of Massa, for example, wrote the music for a strange new text, drawn from Metastasio, but so altered as to seem another work. This work was staged several times from 1791 until 1816, with the title Il trionfo di Giuditta, o sia la morte di Oloferne. While the musicremained the same, the text underwent several modifications between 1791 and 1816. This period saw the first phase of the Italian Risorgimento, the unification process which ultimately led to the creation of the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Thus, a new character was introduced, Gioramo, a strong masculine figure who is the general of a brave but ultimately unlucky Jewish army. This character had not been present before, even in the original pseudo-biblical text. A love story between Judith and Gioramo is hinted at in one of the editions of this libretto, a true work in progress. The presence of an army, albeit defeated, and of a masculine hero, albeit humiliated and caged, make for a sense of a ”marginalization” of the main character of the drama. Judith slowly moves out of center-stage. The nationalization of the drama is achieved by the presence of an army, led by a true though unsuccessful hero. Its ”romance,” so as to comply with the new times, is provided by a more and more complicated plot, where love stories, sordid affairs, and other (totally new) elements enter the stage. Ultimately, the really brand-new character of the Judiths in the nineteenth century is the ”people.” As Giorgio Mangini wrote: ”the people is the new character of the librettos that narrate Judith’s tale in the nineteenth century.”9

  • 10 See the essay of Alexandre Lhâa in this volume (Chap. 23).

19Choral scenes are a requirement of opera, of course, whereas ”azioni sacre” normally required just single characters. While a choral scene was present in one of the oldest works, Iudit by Federico Della Valle (1560–1628), written in the late sixteenth century, it is simply composed of the Assyrians, in despair after their commander’s death. In the nineteenth century the role of the masses, both enemies and Jews, became more and more pronounced. Furthermore, by the nineteenth century it was regarded as inappropriate for a single woman to perform military and/or violent action, which was now seen as requiring masculine vigor, and even in the most important staging of Judith in the Italian Risorgimento, the Giuditta written by Marco Marcello, with Achille Peri’s music, at Judith’s side there is a powerful army and a single brave man who is in love with her.10

  • 11 See the recent book by Jonathan Keates, The Siege of Venice (London: Cape, 2007).

20The most important nineteenth-century example is the famous Giuditta by Giovanni Peruzzini (1815–1869), with the music of the Venetian-Jewish composer Samuele Levi. It was staged first at La Fenice in 1843, on the eve of the major revolutionary events that led to the creation of the Republic of Venice, led by Daniele Manin in 1848, a short-lived democratic Jacobin independent state that was to be reconquered by the Habsburgs in 1849.11

  • 12 On the feminine characters in the Risorgimento plays and operas, and their relation to male counte (...)

21From 1854 until 1912 this work went through several new editions and performances, in the Florentine church of San Giovanni Evangelista. Emilio Gianchi replaced Levi as composer, although Peruzzini’s text remained the same. Peruzzini was a prolific author, well in tune with the new Risorgimento ideology. In his Giuditta, the choral action is paramount. Judith herself is sidelined, overwhelmed by choirs of women, warriors, and priests from both sides. The culmination of this process is Marco Marcelliano Marcello’s drama, mentioned above, with the music of Achille Peri, and dated 1860. Technically the Kingdom of Italy was already formed in 1859, though the unification process was still under way. By 1861 it was completed with the conquest of Sicily, thanks to Giuseppe Garibaldi. So Marcello’s Giuditta appeared at a crucial moment of Italian history. Marcello was a musical journalist and writer of some renown. He rewrote works by Goldoni and commented positively on Verdi. He was a man of the new ideology as well, and flourished in these decades. In his work, which met with success, Giuditta is completely reduced and marginalized. Here, major choirs set the tone of the opera and of all the events: there are old men, warriors, slaves, eunuchs, and a diverse array of people from both sides, in a manner reminiscent of a Victor Hugo novel. The original plot is altered in a very dramatic and unprecedented way. Judith’s action is only marginal, and is made possible by the victory against Holofernes’s troops won by the Jewish army, which is composed of men. Judith’s act of slaughter becomes almost unnecessary. And, even more astonishingly, she has no longer a maidservant (Abra) close to her, but a strong Jewish captain.12

22The definitive decline of Judith is due to several factors. Hebbel’s tragedy (1840), which was translated into Italian and was well known in Italy, depicts Judith as having slept with Holofernes, and bearing his child. This gives a further negative and terrible nuance to Judith, which is also unprecedented. The gothic atmosphere of this tragedy was such that Johann Nestroy wrote a salty parody of it. Comic remakings of the drama were also staged in Italy, marking the end of the Judith myth and of its power (at least until the early twentieth century). From this point on, Judith becomes either the subject of parodies and comedies, or her story is even staged as ballets or fashionable musical pieces, in the style of operetta, or else she becomes the subject of ”Oriental” musical and literary tales, where the sensual elements in her character play an overwhelming, and occasionally exclusive, role. This does not mean that oratorio and other more traditional treatments of Judith disappear completely from the nineteenth-century Italian scene. On the contrary, there is a Judith underworld, there are close religious circles where Judith is still performed in the canonical way, i.e., in the way which culminated with Mozart. Yet the mainstream portrayal of Judith is now farcical or sensual, or else Judith is overwhelmed by collective and/or masculine characters, who are either absent or play a totally different role in the original story – for example, the cowardly Jews are now portrayed as brave. Along with comic poems in dialects (in Italian-Hebrew, Roman, and Leghornese), quite a few of the parodies of this period are very interesting.

23The funniest and most notable parody is a musical Giuditta, written by Attilio Catelli, with music by Telesforo Righi, which was performed in 1871, the first year after the completion of the unification process (Rome was taken by arms by the Savoy troops on September 20, 1870). Here, Giuditta(Judith) and Holofernes meet in Bethulia when they are both students there; the troubled Jewish city becomes a happy contemporary university city. Divided by fortune, they go through several comic adventures, until in the end Giuditta marries a journalist, and kills Holofernes, who has become a kind of stalker and tries to rape her while completely drunk. The final scene sees Bethulia singing and dancing, with her entire population praising Giuditta and her beauty. For a long time after that, the tragic and heroic original meaning of the tale was lost, at least in Italy. Judith also stayed alive as a chapter in Italian ”Orientalism,” a movement of artists, musicians, librettists, and poets that is still in need of a comprehensive scholarly treatment (à la Said) and that includes such fascinating and ambiguous figures as the writer Emilio Salgari and the painters Francesco Hayez, Francesco Paolo Michetti, and Giulio Rosati.

Conclusion. Judith between Farce and Sensual Decadence: Paving the Way for Klimt

24The nineteenth century could have been an auspicious time for Judith. Preliminary research into some lists of names given to babies in Padova in the early decades of the nineteenth century, for instance, reveals that the name Giuditta was very frequent – much more frequent than today, since this name began to go definitively out of fashion at the end of World War II. Furthermore, some very important women of the age of the Risorgimento bear this name, including Mazzini’s lover, Giuditta Sidoli, and the great soprano, Giuditta Negri Pasta. But the most famous Giuditta of the Italian unification saga is undoubtedly Giuditta Tavani Arquati. There are streets, squares, and political associations bearing her name. Along with her husband and her first son, who was 13 years old, she was killed at a relatively young age, on October 25, 1867, while she was pregnant. The assassins were ”zuavi pontifici,” a regiment created in 1860 on the French model, and mercenaries of Pope Pius IX. One of them, John Surratt, had been involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Tavani Arquati’s marble bust was placed in Via della Lungaretta in the Trastevere district of Rome, where the carnage took place and where she was born and had lived all her life. She and her husband were secretly corresponding with Garibaldi’s agents. Another important Giuditta of the Italian nineteenth century was Giuditta Turina, who had a very unfortunate love affair with the great composer Vincenzo Bellini.

25Apart from the high frequency of the name Giuditta among all social classes of nineteenth-century Italy, another occurrence could have been pivotal in launching the figure of Judith in the bright heaven of Italian nationalism and nation-state–making process. The Italian historian Alberto Mario Banti has shown how many ”women with a sword” were rediscovered or created anew, like the French ”Marianne,” to embody and forge the (feminine) identity of the ”nation.” They are almost all warriors, or warriors and saints at the same time, like the ancient French patriot, Joan of Arc. They kill and fight, they defend themselves and their heirs, the members of the nation. They are idealized in poems and novels, and immortalized through bronze, marble, and stone monuments, all over ”nationalized” Europe: in Italy, in Britain (where ”Britons” had been forged as an ideological entity if not a real one as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century, as Linda Colley has brilliantly demonstrated), in Germany, and in France. These ”Judith-like” figures, however, are not identified, and cannot be identified as Judith herself, although in some monuments they look remarkably like Judith after the beheading. Their lore, meaning, and origins are, however, very diverse and there is no firm evidence that Judith was their prototype. Judith does not play any significant role in the Risorgimento’s rhetoric. The new century of nations and nationalism needed new heroes who do not come into conflict with their own nation, who do not call their people ”cowardly,” who do not sign a private pact with a God who entrusted them with the role of savior of a weak, passive flock.

26There is only one exception, dealt with extensively by Banti: the character of Odabella in one of the lesser known works of the Risorgimento, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Attila, with a libretto by Temistocle Solera. The first performance took place once again in Austrian Venice, at La Fenice, on March 17, 1846, at the time of the preparations for the 1848 Venetian up-rising. Here Odabella is, as young people would say, a ”wannabe” Judith. Her aim is to kill Attila, the barbarian king who conquered Aquileia, a mirror image of Bethulia. However, everything goes wrong, the plot becomes extremely complicated, and the happy ending is only possible because of the intervention of the Christian army, and because Odabella kills Attila with one neat stroke of the sword, as if in a duel. In fact, Attila loves her and is astonished and frozen with stupor when the beautiful lady (who is not a widow) strikes him with the strength of a male warrior. This opera is very revealing. At the end the destiny of an entire people is determined not by deceit and cunning, but by open confrontation, loyalty, and chivalry. Judith acts as a man, challenging her enemy to a regular duel, which does not occur only because of Attila’s deep astonishment.

27In addition, in the original story Judith is a widow with no children. She is rich and belongs to an aristocratic family. Her genealogy is the longest, for a woman, in all biblical narratives. She acts against the passivity of her people, and truly despises most of them. She is extremely beautiful, and beauty is something the Italian patriots normally dislike as an aristocratic quality. She survives while most men are killed. In the Risorgimento sagas the fate of women such as Anita Garibaldi, who are courageous but certainly not beautiful, is to die.

28There is, in conclusion, enough to make Judith an outmoded figure in popular, pseudo-democratic nationalism. She is certainly not a hero of the ”Volk.” Still, visual representations of Judith offer a rich reservoir for statues and paintings. These feminine warriors in many cases look like her, but only externally; this resemblance may be coincidental or may be due to a lack of any alternative model.

29Furthermore, and lastly, she is a Jew. She belongs to the ancient Jewish nation, in a century in which only Jews who were assimilated, or well on the way to being so, were accepted in society and in the arts. In some cases, the Italian ”Volk,” longing and fighting for liberation, is equated with the Jews; for example, in Marcello’s Giuditta, both appear as a holy and chosen people. This is, however, something that the ”liberali,” anti-Catholic founding fathers of Italy, could not easily stomach. The Risorgimento was essentially a secular, occasionally fiercely anti-religious (not only anti-Catholic) movement. Therefore, the very fact that her book was excluded from the Jewish biblical canon, and her tale always treated in parallel with that of the Virgin Mary, did not help her cause throughout the nineteenth century. Mary was not a well-regarded figure among Italian ”liberal” patriots and insurgents, apart from some southerners (the ”Viva Maria!” were a strong anti-liberal, anti-French, and anti-Italian movement in southern Italy).

30Therefore, only with decadence, with ”the pleasures of beheading” first rediscovered by Aubrey Beardsley in his poignant Salomé, and by Oscar Wilde, is a new space opened for Judith, as Klimt’s masterpiece of sensualityclearly testifies. Here, any political meaning is lost. The triumph of blood and sensuality hint at long-lost images of Judith, from the splendor of Caravaggio, to the sensuality of Allori. This artistic use of Judith is a signal of the strong detachment of the artist from the political world, which is now in the hands of those who have inherited the ”nations” formed during the previous century. The immense carnage of the First World War, where the heads of so many patriots, but not of ministers and leaders, were lost to the terrible ”democratic” bullets of machine guns, would have been enough to appall any brave Judith, fighting only with her God-given skills, beauty and cunning.


1 I wish to thank Elisa Bianco (Boston University) as well as Marian McHugh (Trinity College, Dublin) for their invaluable help in drafting and revising this essay. During the initial drafting of this essay, Professor Alberto M. Banti (Università di Pisa) and Dr. Marco Mondini (Università di Padova) gave me valuable hints and friendly assistance. This essay is dedicated to Judith Lane, with fond memories, and to the memory of Professor Frederick C. Lane.

2 Alberto Mario Banti, L’onore della nazione. Identità sessuali e violenza nel nazionalismo europeo dal XVIII secolo alla Grande Guerra (Torino: Einaudi, 2005), p. 324.

3 For a slightly different view of Judith in the Italian Risorgimento, see the essay by Alexandre Lhâa in this volume (Chap. 23).

4 One of the choruses of Verdi’s Nabucco became a sort of unofficial Italian national anthem, still sung as such as an alternative to the dull and occasionally meaningless official national anthem by Goffredo Mameli.

5 See Federico Barbierato, Politici e ateisti. Percorsi della miscredenza a Venezia tra Sei e Settecento (Milano: Edizioni Unicopli, 2006).

6 See Alberto M. Banti, La nazione del Risorgimento. Parentela, santità e onore alle origini dell’Italia unita (Torino: Einaudi, 2000).

7 See the provisional Paolo Bernardini, Elisa Bianco, ”Judith in the Italian Literature: A Comprehensive Bibliography,” in the pre-print of the papers of the Sword of Judith Conference.

8 Other noteworthy works, such as that of Paolo Giacometti, are discussed in Alexandre Lhâa’s essay in this volume (Chap. 23). Occasionally, the focus of the nineteenth-century treatment of Judith became a reevaluated Holofernes. See Michelangelo Prunetti and Giovanni Rossi, La morte di Oloferne, dramma sacro per musica (Rome, 1823). Other interesting ”nationalized” Judiths are those of Emilio Cianchi (Firenze, 1854) with a text once again by Peruzzini and Emiliano Ravazzini (Sassuolo, 1885).

9 See Giorgio Mangini, ”Betulia liberata e La morte di Oloferne. Momenti di drammaturgia musicale nella tradizione dei Trionfi di Giuditta,” in Paolo Pinamonti (ed.), Mozart, Padova e la ”Betulia liberata”: Committenza, interpretazione e fortuna delle azioni sacre metastasiane nel Settecento (Florence: Olschki, 1991), pp. 145–69, 166.

10 See the essay of Alexandre Lhâa in this volume (Chap. 23).

11 See the recent book by Jonathan Keates, The Siege of Venice (London: Cape, 2007).

12 On the feminine characters in the Risorgimento plays and operas, and their relation to male counterparts, see Francesca Savoia, ”From Lucia to Violetta: romantic heroines of the 19th-century Italian opera,” Revue de littérature comparée, 66:3 (1992), pp. 311–26.


Paolo Bernardini is Professor of Early Modern European History at the School of Law of Insubria University (Como, Italy). The publication of his Fragments from a Land of Freedom. Essays on Fin de Siècle America is forth-coming. He co-edited, with Norman Fiering, The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to West (2001).


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