Dyonysus, otherwise known as Bacchus, is the god of, wait for it: grape-harvest, winemaking and wine, of fertility, orchards and fruit, vegetation, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theatre in ancient Greek religion and myth. The frenzy he induces is referred to as bakkheia. The Romans also referred to him as Liber, meaning free. Partaking in his wine and ecstatic dancing is said to free the reveller and in turn be possessed by Bacchus himself. Caravaggio’s work was commissioned by Cardinal Del Monte, owner of the Palazzo Madama in Rome. This palace is now the home of the Italian Senate. I walked past it frequently on my way to Gelateria Giolitti when living in Rome.
Why have I chosen Bacchus? Well in many ways I thought this enigmatic rendering of the god of wine (etc) was and is all of us during this third and ostensibly final lockdown. We are one and all indulging in excesses of our favourite vices (wine in the case of Bacchus), looking invitingly out into the infectious wilderness, waiting for someone to come and visit us. Our youth is fleeting and evaporated in a seemingly lost year, as exemplified by the rotting apple and overripe pomegranate, which Caravaggio here uses to hint at the theme of vanitas, which I talked about in the Boy with Bubble post a few weeks ago. The message is clear, youth is fleeting, wine is plentiful, why not give yourself away to excess and abandon while you can? I suspect that this will be a theme of the roaring 20s-esque resurgence of base hedonism which is to capture the world come July.
But what Caravaggio characterized was a body dedicated to sensuality rather than a soul infected with Christianity. The sly, dreamy eyes speculate on carnal things and promise gratification of the senses, not of the spirit, as “love cools without wine and fruit.” Yet the possibility of an underlying moral, bizarre as it may seem and contradicted by appearances, cannot be totally ignored. The touches of corruption in the still life – the wormhole that has spoiled the apple, the pomegranate that has burst from overripeness – hint again of the Vanitas theme, that the boy is triumphant only in his youth, which will vanish as quickly as the bubbles in the carafe of freshly poured wine. Caravaggio
The homoerotic themes are evident in Caravaggio’s Bacchus. Whether this was the maestro vocalising his own homosexual desires (bedding younger men was acceptable in 1596) or insinuating that Cardinal Del Monte was partial to them is up for academic debate. Either way the sensuality which comes through is striking. The feeble effort to make himself decent, the inviting gaze and proffering of the wine goblet are together masterfully rendered. I am always agog at how Caravaggio seems to present the finger nails of his subjects so successfully also, as an aside. The Carmen Miranda-esque headpiece is also fantastic.
Overall I think this is becoming one of my preferred paintings. I will see if I can have a fridge magnet made of it. It is the perfect subject for excess and abandon and I imagine Cardinal Del Monte was thrilled with it. Bacchus currently resides in the Uffizi art gallery in Florence.