Admitted to the Accademia del Disegno at the age of 20 in 1599, Matteo Rosselli was soon to become one of the most important artists of the early seventeenth century in Florence. He won the patronage of such families as the Medici, the Corsini and the Dragomani. Baldinucci, who was taught how to draw by him, wrote a long biography on his master in the Notizie dei Professori del disegno (1681-1728). Rosselli was indeed a prolific draughtsman and a considerable number of softly modelled red chalk drawings of single figures, which are mainly preparatory to his pictures, survive.
We are grateful to Doctor Francesca Baldassari who confirmed the attribution when she inspected this picture (29 October 1999). She dates the work to early in the artist's career, circa 1600, pointing out that the head of Judith, and the detailed depiction of her drapery and jewellery, still show the influence of Ligozzi and Pagani, with whom Rosselli trained. The depiction of the figures in this painting, stepping out of the dark into a light that creates a strong chiaroscuro in their costume, and the delicate modelling of the faces, were to become characteristics of Rosselli's style.
As Dr. Baldassari notes, it is hard to imagine that Cristofano Allori could have painted his famous depiction of the subject (Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence) without having seen the present picture. The brocades and jewellery of Judith, contrasting with the beautifully depicted introvert expression of the maid, whose head is covered with a white shawl, are elements that must have inspired Allori when painting his picture in the 1610s. In general, the significance of Rosselli on the development of Florentine Baroque painting is strong, for many of its protagonists trained in his studio: for example, Giovanni da San Giovanni, Francesco Furini, Jacopo Vignali, Lorenzo Lippi and Baldassare Franceschini.
The subject of this hitherto unpublished picture was especially popular amongst Florentine Baroque artists. The importance of the story within the imagery of the Florentine Republic probably started with Donatello's Judith slaying Holofernes, which was positioned in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio, from which the Medici ruled. On the column on which the statue rested, an inscription explains the meaning of the subject for the city, reminding its inhabitants how 'Kingdoms fall through luxury and cities rise through virtue'. For the Old Testament Book of Judith tells how the chaste and beautiful Israelite widow saved the people of her city by pretending to defect to the Assyrians. At a banquet in the Assyrian camp the general Holofernes, who intended to seduce her, was 'overcome with wine' enabling Judith to behead him with his own sword.