Ritorno di Giuditta was executed in 1983, the year of Fausto Melotti's retrospective at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome. This work perfectly encapsulates the unique, playful poetry that infuses Melotti's sculptures and has led to their acclaim. Ritorno di Giuditta consists of a delicate group of frames and stands made of thin strands of metal, many of which are arranged vertically. There is a sense of vibration in these strands of brass which lends the sculpture a lyrical visual rhythm: as the eye progresses from one side to the other, the viewer is reminded of writing or, more pertinently, of musical annotation. Indeed, the structure of this work sings with the sense of music: the pieces of metal appear like chimes or the strings of some impossible harp, waiting to be plucked. In these ways, Melotti has managed to conjure an acoustic dimension into this sculpture.
Melotti's sculpture straddles the realms of both abstraction and figuration. The composition, with its complex and intricate verticals, horizontals and diagonals, has a formal aspect, yet within this framework are flashes of figuration, as shown in the deftly-modelled faces in the centre. These function as glimpses of a narrative, evoking a sense of story. They are like annotations in their own right, scattered throughout the work like loose memories, small, ephemeral flourishes that evoke the narrative that is being played out by the heads and garments that are perched in their various places. The theatricality of this composition recalls the shorthand-like drama of the sculptures that Melotti made in the post-war period, his Teatrini (a name that would later be adopted by his friend Lucio Fontana for one of his series). However, where those works were presented in small, box-like frames, Ritorno di Giuditta shows the open aesthetic of Melotti's 'Aerial Sculptures.' This work is deliberately ethereal, made of tiny jutting fragments that pierce the space yet. This restraint results in Ritorno di Giuditta having an intriguing insubstantiality, appearing as an elegant and eloquent alternative to the bulky masses usually associated with the term 'sculpture.' Rather than use the monumentality of many three-dimensional works, Melotti has painstakingly assembled a work which, with its various shards of figuration, appears like the gossamer-like remnant of a dream or a memory.
The title appears to relate to the story of Judith, the Jewish heroine of the book of the same name in the Bible. As early as 1927, Melotti had created a work called Giuditta e la servente, and so here seems to have returned to the subject. According to the tale, Judith insinuated her way into the camp of the Assyrian leader Holofernes, whose forces were menacing Israel; there, she decapitated him, returning to the camp of the Israelites with his head, showing it as a sign of their deliverance by God. The decapitation itself was a popular theme with many artists including the sculptor Donatello, as well as the painters Lucas Cranach, Mantegna, Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi and Veronese, who often explored the theme with relish, filling their depictions with exuberantly gory and sensual detail. The title of Melotti's work recalls Botticelli's celebrated painting showing Judith's return, accompanied by her loyal maid and carrying the slain Assyrian's head back to the camp at Bethulia. However, the contrast between the internal and external spaces within Ritorno di Giuditta implies perhaps the tent of Holofernes, an idea underscored by the clothes and drapes that appear to be hanging in various places. Indeed, these also imply that this scene could depict a far more domestic scene, a far cry from the drama of the biblical tale. Melotti's poetic sculptures thrive in this form of ambiguity: while there is clearly a consistency of thought within the work, the narrative is as elusive and delicate as the sculpture itself.