Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Florence 2012 Journal: Analysis of Michelangelo's Bacchus.

Michelangelo's Bacchus was originally sculpted for a high ranking cardinal called Raffaele Riario in 1496-7. However, he was unhappy with it and its eventual owner became Jacopo Glli. It is made out of marble and depicts Bacchus, the Roman God of Wine, whilst drunk. It is one of only two completed works from his time in Rome that has survived until this day (fig. 1). However, it was a very controversial piece in terms of the message it portrays, the likeness to original depictions of Bacchus and lastly, its form.

The subject matter is said to have been 'a popular subject with artists of the 16th century'.[1] However, the reception to this particular portrayal was not positive. It did not serve the correct purpose of sculpture during the 16th century. John Symmonds has suggested that this is due to the fact that it appears 'wrong in spiritual conception'; whilst also being 'brutally materialistic' in a society where it should have been 'noble or graceful'.[2] Therefore, it is not surprising that Riario was so displeased with Michelangelo's work. The spiritual conception would have been vital to the cardinal - it was important to surround himself with deities to allude to his own sense of being god like. What is more, to possess a good sculpture was as much of a status symbol as it was anything for a particular purpose. Therefore, even though 'Romans drank wine with every meal during the Renaissance', nobody wanted to admit they may ever compose themselves in the same way as Michelangelo's Bacchus.[3] With this in mind, it is indeed difficult to see who would actually have wanted to own the Bacchus as in doing so they would be portraying themselves as irresponsible and not noble at all.

Whilst Symmonds goes on to explain that 'the countenance of this figure is the most revolting mistake of the spirit and meaning of Bacchus', other art historians argue that his Bacchus is actually very truthful to classical depictions of the God, thus not a mistake in meaning or spirit.[4] One particular scholar asserts that the 'relaxed pose and natural gaze' is testament to his in depth knowledge of the classical Gods, as he had been studying the works of Greece and Rome through the works that had been 'collected by his patrons'.[5] Such knowledge is displayed in his addition of the Satyr. This shows that he was aware of the Bacchanalia - the ancient festivals or celebrations of Bacchus in which only women and Satyr's were allowed to attend.

In terms of form, Michelangelo was extremely advanced and 'approached the study of anatomy as a means of achieving greater beauty in his figures'.[6] Symmonds, who earlier had criticised the piece, here considers it in a far more positive light and casts aside the other issues he may have had with it - he summarises his findings in the following:

'The arms are executed in the most perfect and manly beauty; the body is conceived with great energy, and the lines which describe the sides and thigs, and the manner in which they mingle into one another, are of the highest order of boldness and beauty.' [7]

What Symmonds is referring to here is the naturalism Bacchus exhibits. The 'manly beauty' is the strength in the shoulders and the clear display of muscles throughout the body. This is a direct result of Michelangelo's studies in anatomy. Whilst studying, he dissected numerous dead bodies in the Santo di Spirito hospital, Florence; and as Bacchus was executed a mere 4 years later, it is clear that the acquired knowledge was fresh in his mind and applied perfectly. Also of note is the stomach - it is slightly bloated due to the wine and thus further evidnce of Michelangelo's expertise in human form.

In conclusion, Michelangelo may not have portrayed Bacchus in his most conventional form, and for the time it may have been an undesirable piece to own. However, for an art historian in th 21st century it is of significant value as it showcases the High Renaissance in its most truthful and unflattering yet brilliant form.

[1] G. Di Cagno, Michelangelo (Art Masters), (Oliver Press, Minnesota, 2008), 20.
[2] J. Symmonds, The Life of Michelangelo (Kessinger Publishing Co, Montana, 2004), 31.
[3] A. Nickerson, A journey into Michelangelo's Rome (Roaring Forties Press, California, 2006), 38.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Gi Cagno, op. cit., 20.
[6] A. Nickerson, op. cit., 38.
[7] J. Symmonds, op. cit., 31.

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