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The art of Cristofano Allori, who should have died thereafter

17 December 2021

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

Cristofano Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613, currently in the exhibition “Masterpieces of Buckingham Palace”

Cristofano Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613, currently in the exhibition “Masterpieces of Buckingham Palace”

FOUR centuries ago, on 1 April, Cristofano Allori died in Florence. A month earlier, the death, on 28 February, of Duke Cosimo II had plunged the Medici court into mourning. As a result, Allori’s own demise is unlikely to have gained much attention, even though he was the city’s leading late Mannerist artist.

In any other year, we might have expected a large-scale anniversary exhibition, with a catalogue as sumptuous as the fabrics that he painted, to make up for all that. Many of his works are to be found both in the Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti.

Cristofano Allori’s father, Alessandro (b.1535), was a successful artist, too, who had worked with Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72). Brozino adopted his apprentice as his foster son, and Alessandro added Bronzino to his own signature, as did Cristofano in his turn. Between them, the three represent more than a century of Florentine court culture, noted as much for portraits as for religious commissions and tapestry designs.

The 1613 Judith with the Head of Holofernes is the first of many that Cristofano Allori painted, and is perhaps his most widely recognised work. It has been long regarded as the most important painting of the Florentine Seicento. This is the primary autograph painting (closely matched by a later version, now in the Pitti Palace, that was painted for Cosimo II sometime before 1620). It came into English royal ownership with the 1627 dispersal of the Gonzaga collection in Mantua, when it was among many paintings acquired for Charles I.

In London, it was hung either at St James’s Palace or in Somerset House, and in the 1650 republican sale was listed at £60. In the same sale of the king’s treasures, a pair of Mantegna’s — Death of the Virgin (Prado) and Sacra Conversazione (Boston) — together fetched £34. Colonel William Wetton, who had raised a foot regiment to serve in Ireland in 1648 with Colonel Monck for Cromwell, forked out £230 for Andrea del Sarto’s 1522 Madonna and Child with St Matthew and an Angel (Prado).

In the apocryphal Book of Judith (8-13), we read that Nebuchadnezzar oppressed the Israelites, sending his captain general Holofernes to subdue them at Bethulia. Besieged in the city to the point of starvation, a widowed Jewess, Judith, left the city by night and, dressed up to the nines, slipped into the captain’s tent. She seduced him over dinner à deux, and beheaded him when he was in a drunken stupor. Returning to the city with his head as a trophy, she rallied the Israelites to drive away the Assyrians.

One hundred and fifty years before this painting, Cosimo I had commissioned Donatello (1386-1466) for a statue of the Jewish heroine which Cristofano could have passed daily. The political purpose of that commission was evident. Originally, the statue of the triumphant Judith had two inscriptions: “Kingdoms fall through luxury; cities rise through virtues. Behold the neck of pride, severed by the hand of humility” and “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.”

Although the commission came from the Medici in a later century, Allori was not producing political propaganda to justify their control across Tuscany, a suzerainty seriously challenged only by the independent city state of Lucca.

In a slightly earlier painting, Agostino Carracci (1557-1602) offered a surprising portrait of the deceased Olimpia Luna as Judith with her pious husband, the tousle-headed Professor Melchiorre Zoppio, as Holofernes. First shown in London in a charity benefit exhibition (at Mathiesen’s, 1985), the Carracci was again recently auctioned into a private collection (christies.com).

Like Agostino Carracci, Cristofano turned his Medici commission into a very private affair, referencing himself after his affair with Maria di Giovanni Mazzafirri (who later died in 1617) came to an end probably because of her mother’s constant meddling; it is said that he included his hoped-for mother-in-law as the old serving woman and Maria as Judith who had vanquished him, the bearded Holofernes.

Of his church commissions, those for the cathedral of San Zeno in Pistoia, for the high altar and the Panchiatichi family chapel, are the most significant. For the high altar, he and Francesco Furini provided a massive Resurrection (1601/02-10), busy with a whole heavenly host surging behind him ready to welcome him on high, whereas the Panciatichi commission, from a family who had in a previous generation sat to Bronzino, is a more traditional Annunciation.

While some of Cristofano’s paintings are often crowded with “extras”, others gain in pathos from the simplicity of the scene. His design for the Supper at Emmaus takes place in an open loggia, offering lunch in a busy sunlit Italian trattoria. No completed altarpiece has been identified for this composition, which might have surprised many with its blatant disregard of Luke’s carefully planned evening meal.

At least one might have expected the scene of The Embarkation of Marie de Medici (1605), his contribution to a series of ceiling paintings for the church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri in Pisa, to be a populous quayside composition. He does not disappoint. G. B. Tiepolo’s Cleopatra being received by Anthony comes to mind.

On the other hand, Jesus rescuing Peter from the waves, an altarpiece for the newly completed Usimbardi chapel in the Florentine church of Sancta Trinita, designed by Ludovico Cigoli in 1602 as a mortuary chapel for two brother bishops and only completed in 1638, or his St Julian helping a pilgrim from a boat (Pitti Palace) are large compositions designed to centre our attention and our prayers.

Perhaps the most moving of his works is the Deposition (c.1590-1600) in the 1298 Franciscan church at Pescia, a small town near Pistoia. With the 19th-century dissolution of the monasteries and suppression of religious communities across Italy the church had been abandoned.

An antiquarian canon, Fr Ermenegildo Nucci, with a colleague, set up a restoration committee to reopen and refurbish the church for public worship in time to honour the 700th anniversary of the visit of St Francis to Pescia (October 1211).

Cristofano’s altarpiece gains in immediacy from the plaque that more than 40 years later the indefatigable Nucci erected beneath it to mark the unarmed victims of the “crudelissima Guerra” 1940-45. Two angels carrying the instruments of the Passion stand aloof in the background, as if not wanting to intrude on the Virgin’s grief as a turbaned Joseph of Arimathea holds the lifeless body.

Notwithstanding the impossibility of his being able to grasp the figure slumped back in his arms, he looks downwards and across to the crown of thorns that is propped up to one side for our contemplation. “Never was grief like thine.”

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