Bacchus by Michelangelo: Sculpting Intoxication

Image of Bacchus by Michelangelo
Bacchus by Michelangelo (1496-1497). On display at the Bargello Museum in Florence. (wikicommons)

Just around the corner from Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio is the often overlooked Bargello.  Eclipsed by the Uffizi and the Accademia Galleries, the Bargello nevertheless houses an impressive collection of Renaissance and Baroque sculpture.  One notable item tucked away within its halls is an early work by Michelangelo – a life-sized sculpture of the god Bacchus.  The piece is experimental, departing from the more dignified version of Bacchus often seen in classical sculpture.  Michelangelo’s god is wobbly one, who stares out with wild eyes and raises a cup to all who approach.  It is a jovial work, depicting the state of inebriation with a naturalism that few others artist could hope to match.  Despite the skill evident in the work, the piece landed with a thud when it was first unveiled.  Rejected by the powerful Cardinal who commissioned it, the statue was consigned to the garden of a minor Roman banker.  Even today, the piece receives far less attention than the artist’s Pieta’ and David, completed only a few years later.  A sad fate, perhaps, for what many agree is Michelangelo’s first true masterpiece.

Style

Michelangelo’s Bacchus is first and foremost an experimental work.  Though it incorporates many of the classical tropes often associated with Bacchus, the overall demeanor of the statue is a marked departure from traditional depictions of the God of Wine.  This is most evident in Bacchus’s stance.  Inebriated, Michelangelo’s Bacchus appears on the verge of falling over.  In classical sculpture, Bacchus was most often depicted fully upright and in control.  Occasionally he is seen wobbly, but nothing approaching how Michelangelo depicted him.

In depicting Bacchus in this way, Michelangelo turned one of the key elements of classical sculpture on its head.  Ancient Roman and Greek sculptors often depicted standing figures with weight shifted to one side, which alters the alignment of the shoulders and hips.  This effect (referred to as contrapposto) makes the work feel more dynamic and lifelike.  Here, Bacchus also has his weight shifted to one side, but whereas in other sculptures the stance adds a sense of power and control, in Michelangelo’s work it conveys the opposite – a figure who seems on the verge of falling.  This is a challenging effect to create and is the chief reason many admire it today.

Image of Bacchus by Michelangelo from the front.
Bacchus appears most off balance when viewed from directly in front. (Credit: Artifacts)

Other notable departures from classical works include the almost manic expression on Bacchus’s face, the effeminate (almost androgynous) quality of the body, and the childlike satyr behind Baccus’s left leg.  This latter element is particularly interesting.  While classical sculptors often included satyrs in works depicting Bacchus, they almost always had human bodies (only the ears and horns marked them as non-human).  The goat body employed by Michelangelo came into prominence only during medieval times, possibly as a result of associations between Satyrs and the devil. 

Detail of Satyr in Michelangelo's Bacchus
Satyr in Michelangelo’s Bacchus. (Credit: Artifacts)

While Michelangelo chose the medieval version of the satyr for his work, he depicted the mythical creature as a child, thus weakening the darker connotations associated with the figure.  The position of the satyr (situated almost fully behind Bacchus’s left leg) also compels the viewer to walk around the statue, admiring it from multiple angles. 

History

Portrait of Cardinal Riario included in Raphael's Mass at Bolsena
Portrait of Cardinal Riario taken from Raphael’s Mass at Bolsena (fresco, 1512-1514). wikicommons

Michelangelo’s Bacchus was sculpted in Rome between 1496 and 1497 for Cardinal Raffaelle Riaro.  The story of how Michelangelo came to Rome to work for the Cardinal is something of a legend in and of itself. 

After the death of Michelangelo’s first great patron (Lorenzo de’Medici) in 1492, the young artist struggled to make a name for himself.  While he continued to sculpt religious subjects for patrons in Florence and Bologna, the commissions he received were relatively obscure and even today receive nowhere near the same attention as his later pieces.  Eventually, he returned to classical subjects, sculpting a sleeping cupid (now lost) in early 1496.  Modeled after another sculpture in the Medici collection, the work was apparently such a good copy that a patron of Michelangelo’s recommended he attempt to sell it as a genuine antique. 

Intrigued, Michelangelo buried the statue to make it appear older than it actually was.  He then engaged an agent to see if anyone would bite.  One in fact did – the powerful Cardinal Riario, who paid the princely sum of 200 ducats for the work.  Eventually, Riario learned that the piece was a forgery and took his money back.  He was, however, impressed with the skill evident in the forgery. 

Learning that it was Michelangelo who had created the statue, the Cardinal requested that he come visit him in Rome.  There, Riario invited Michelangelo to inspect his collection of classical sculptures, one of the best in the city.  Michelangelo had never before seen such a collection and reportedly spent an entire day admiring it.

Riario then requested Michelangelo try his hand at another classical subject – the Roman God of Wine, Bacchus.  The work was likely intended to adorn a grand palace then under construction by the Cardinal.  The palace, which came to be known as the Cancelleria, was one of the most ambitious architectural projects undertaken in 15th century Rome.  To have his work placed in its garden would be a real feather in the cap of the 21-year-old Michelangelo.

18th Century Engraving showing the facade of the Cancelleria.
18th Century Engraving showing the Cancelleria by Giuseppe Vasi. (wikicommons)

Michelangelo set up shop in the home of Riario’s agent, Jacopo Galli, who lived across the street from the location where the new palace was being constructed.  Though Michelangelo may not have known it at the time, Galli would become one of his most ardent supporters, playing a crucial role in his successful bid to obtain the commission that ultimately became the Pieta’.  In 1496, however, Galli simply offered a quiet space to work.

Work on Bacchus proceeded smoothly, with Michelangelo completing it by the summer of 1497.  The Cardinal appears to have been supportive initially, even gifting Michelangelo two barrels of wine (appropriate, given what Michelangelo was carving for him).  However, by 1497, Riario had changed his mind about the statue.  While paying Michelangelo the full 150 ducats he had promised, the Cardinal never took possession of the work, instead leaving it with Galli. 

Exactly why Riario rejected the work remains the subject of debate.  Michelangelo biographer Martin Gayford suggests that Riario may have hoped for something more closely based on classical models, as Michelangelo had done so skillfully with his earlier sleeping Cupid.  If so, Michelangelo’s tipsy Bacchus with its wild eyes might have struck the Cardinal as lacking decorum.

Drawing of Jacopo Galli's garden.
Drawing of Jacopo Galli’s garden where Michelangelo’s Bacchus was placed among a number of genuine antiquities. As shown in the picture, the hand and cup were removed to make the statue appear older, but were later restored. Drawing by Maerten van Heemskerck (c. 1532). (wikicommons)

Another theory put forward by art historian Erin Sutherland Minter suggests that Bacchus may have fallen victim to a turn in Papal politics.  Minter points out that in 1497, the Pope’s favorite son was murdered by unknown assailants.  The Pope took this as a sign of divine punishment and initiated work on an ambitious set of conservative reforms.  Though these reforms were never adopted, the political climate during 1497 made it impossible for the Cardinal to take possession of a statue depicting a drunken pagan god.

Whatever motivated Riario’s rejection, Michelangelo never forgave him.  Though he was paid in full, the placement of the piece in Galli’s home was a significant step down and would not provide the reputational boost he had hoped form.  Decades later in Michelangelo’s old age, he attempted to obscure the origin of the piece, telling his biographers that it was Galli who had commissioned it all along.  He claimed Riario, on the other hand, had poor taste in art and had never asked him for a work. 

Symbolism/Significance

As noted in the style section above, Michelangelo’s Bacchus incorporates a number of significant departures from earlier classical depictions of the God of Wine.  Exactly what Michelangelo meant to convey with his wild-eyed inebriated Bacchus has long been a subject of speculation.

One possibility is that the piece was meant to embody Neoplatonic ideas of “divine madness.”  According to art historian Charles Carman, many Renaissance Neoplatonists believed mild inebriation was actually a form of heightened consciousness which could bring one closer to a knowledge of God.  Carman argues that Michelangelo’s Bacchus is meant to epitomize just such a state, transforming the figure from a pagan deity into a divine prophet.

Image of Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian.
Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian (oil on canvas, c. 1520-1523). Like Michelangelo’s work, the piece offers a wilder view of the God Bacchus, seen here with his eclectic entourage. (wikicommons)

A more common interpretation, however, is that the sculpture represents a more puritanical take on Bacchus.  Gayford notes that Renaissance thinkers in Florence appear to have taken a dimmer view of the God of Wine than their classical predecessors.  Michelangelo, channeling this viewpoint, thus presents a wilder Bacchus; one more reflective of the dangers of overindulgence in worldly pleasures. 

Not long after finishing Bacchus, Michelangelo took on the work which at last established his reputation as a great sculptor – the Pieta’.  Like Bacchus, the piece is masterfully executed.  The same level of naturalism and texture suffuses the work.  Despite being a Christian subject, the piece also contains classical echoes.  As Gayford points out, Mary is cast in the mold of a classical goddess; not at all reflective of her actual age at the time of Christ’s crucifixion.  Michelangelo would later state that the depiction of the virgin as youthful is reflective of her great virtue, which he argued would have allowed her to maintain her youthful beauty far longer than natural.

Unlike Bacchus, the Pieta’ is a much more straightforward work.  The pathos pervading Mary’s downcast expression and Christ’s lifeless corpse is powerful and unambiguous.  To understand this work, one need not be versed in the finer points of Neoplatonic philosophy or theology.  The emotions are universal and far more relatable.

Image of Michelangelo's Pieta'.
Michelangelo’s Pieta’ (1498-1499). Credit: Artifacts

Other later works by Michelangelo would also carry echoes of Bacchus, though he would never again attempt a piece quite so experimental.  In David, Michelangelo again depicts his subject holding a classical contrapposto stance.  But whereas Bacchus appears on the verge of falling over, David is fully in control.  Many figures across the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel offer similar displays of dynamic motion and shifting postures.  The sense of balance in these pieces – whether disturbed like in Bacchus or more controlled – is a key factor marking them as masterpieces. 

Sources and Further Reading on Bacchus by Michelangelo

  1. To read about an even earlier work by Michelangelo, see this post on the artist’s Battle of the Centaurs.
  2. Gayford, Martin. Michelangelo: His Epic Life. Penguin, 2013.
  3. Minter, Erin Sutherland. “Discarded Deity: The Rejection of Michelangelo’s ‘Bacchus’ and the Artist’s Response.” Renaissance Studies, vol. 28, no. 3, 2014, pp. 443–58.
  4. Carman, Charles H. “MICHELANGELO’S ‘BACCHUS’ AND DIVINE FRENZY.” Source: Notes in the History of Art, vol. 2, no. 4, 1983, pp. 6–13.
  5. Lieberman, Ralph. “Regarding Michelangelo’s ‘Bacchus.’” Artibus et Historiae, vol. 22, no. 43, 2001, pp. 65–74.
  6. Freedman, Luba. “Michelangelo’s Reflections on Bacchus.” Artibus et Historiae, vol. 24, no. 47, 2003, pp. 121–35.