Listening to Art

03.05: Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes

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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume three, number five: Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio.

Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.

Judith Beheading Holofernes was painted between 1597 and 1600. It is one of the paintings where Caravaggio used a model named Fillide Melandroni, a prostitute working for Ranuccio Tomassoni, who Caravaggio would kill in a duel in 1606. Fillide Melandroni herself had a violent aspect to her personality. In 1600 she and a friend attacked another prostitute, Prudenza Zacchia, who was in bed with Tomassoni. I quote from Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, by Andrew Graham-Dixon (p. 179), which has court documents recording the victim’s statement:

The said Fillide came at me with a knife to disfigure me, and she hauled me up by the mouth to give me a scar. I defended myself with my hand, which she cut on the wrist and wounded me, as your Honour can see … and as soon as they saw that I was bleeding, they went with God. Later they went out again to have a go at me, and if they hadn’t been restrained by certain gentlemen … they would have gone at me again. Then the said Fillide came up to the window, and started to taunt me, saying that she wanted to scar me all over.

Graham-Dixon also describes (p. 184) the technique Caravaggio had developed by this time:

By the end of the 1590s Caravaggio had invented a new style and a new approach to painting, and in the three pictures for which Fillide posed he arrived at something like a fixed, settled method. In some early works he had used a light ground, like other painters from Lombardy. But in these later paintings he used a dark ground and worked from dark to light, a technique that he may have seen for the first time in the art of Tintoretto. It suited him in a number of ways. A dark ground enabled him to focus only on the essentials of a scene, as he imagined it. Dark paint creates an illusion of deep shadow around the principal forms and therefore also does away with the need to paint background detail…. Caravaggio was fond of short-cuts and liked to work quickly, which suggests another reason behind his extreme tenebrism: quite apart from their expressive effect, pools of darkness, like visible ground, simply mean that there is less to paint.

This is a painting, oil on canvas, 195 cm wide by 145 cm high.

Now let’s listen to Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio, recorded at the Palazzo Barberini, in Rome, on 29 May 2018.

Waveform of the field recording.

That was Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.

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All web sites accessed as of date of publication.

Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Gallerie Nazionali Barberini Corsini. “Judith Beheading Holofernes.” Palazzo Barberini.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Caravaggio,”

⸻, s.v. “Judith Beheading Holofernes (Caravaggio),”