Where? Room 97 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Cardinal del Monte, who gave it as a present to Ferdinando I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
What do you see? A young Bacchus is holding a glass of wine in his left hand. He has a wreath of vine leaves and grapes on his head. It seems that he is wearing some makeup on his face. With his right hand, he is playing with the drawstrings of his half-opened robe. Bacchus is sitting on a chaise longue (a Roman type of chair/bench – also called a triclinium). On the stone table in front of him are a ceramic bowl of fruit and a jug of wine. The bowl of fruit contains both healthy and spoiled fruits as well as fresh green leaves and spoiled yellow leaves. Bacchus already seems a bit drunk and extends an invitation to the viewer to join him for a glass of wine and maybe something more… If you look carefully, you can see the ripples in the glass of wine to indicate the movement of the left arm of Bacchus towards the viewer.
Backstory: This painting was created when Caravaggio was staying with his first patron, Cardinal del Monte. True to his unconventional style, Caravaggio painted an imperfect, limited, earthly version of Bacchus. This may be close to some of the figures he met in the many taverns and brothels that he liked to visit. Cardinal del Monte gave it away in 1608 to the Grand Duke of Tuscany on the occasion of the marriage of the Grand Duke’s son Cosimo II. The painting has long been unknown to the public as it stayed for centuries hidden in some of the private quarters of its owners. It was rediscovered in 1913 in the storage of the Uffizi Museum after which it was attributed to Caravaggio.
Symbolism: The bowl with spoiled fruit is an example of a vanitas, which means ‘emptiness’. Vanitas refers in the traditional Christian view to the emptiness and worthlessness of all earthly goods and ambitions. Spoiled fruit is one common way to present this. It was appropriate to depict this fruit with Bacchus as he was associated with fertility and agriculture. Notice also the dirty fingernails of Bacchus. Some interpret this as a warning of the consequences of earthly pleasures, while other just attribute this to the style of Caravaggio (he painted in great detail what he saw, including dirty fingernails). The vine leaves in Bacchus’ hair are one of his sacred symbols, and that is how we can easily recognize him. Finally, it seems that Bacchus is wearing some makeup on his face, which is often associated with sexuality and strengthens the idea that he is inviting the viewer for more than a glass of wine.
Who is Bacchus? Bacchus (in Greek Dionysus) is the god of the wine, fertility, madness, theatre, and religious ecstasy. He is the son of god Zeus and the mortal Semele.
Why Bacchus? Bacchus was a chronic alcoholic and was a good subject to depict the misery of the common people (or as some people think, the miserable state of Caravaggio at the time of the painting). Bacchus was also the inspiration for popular festivals, called Bacchanalia, which were introduced to Rome in the second century before Christ. These festivals contained a lot of alcohol and nudity and were a popular theme in Renaissance art. The fact that Bacchus was associated with drinking and other crazy activities made him a popular subject for some less religious artists. Caravaggio has created more paintings in which Bacchus was the subject. For example, around 1593, he created the painting Young Sick Bacchus which is considered to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio. This painting is now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was trained by Simone Peterzano, who was in turn trained by Titian. He used a realistic painting style, paying both attention to the physical and emotional state of the subjects he painted. He combined this with a brilliant contrast between light and shadow in his paintings. Caravaggio had a tumultuous life and was accused of murder, assault, many fights, and he served in prison. However, his sheer brilliance as an artist has given him a place in the history books. His painting style has had a big influence on the development of Baroque painting (which includes drama and an intense contrast between light and dark). Among his many famous works are his Medusa in the Uffizi Museum and The Musicians in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Many experts believe that Caravaggio used a mirror to draw this painting such that he did not have to make the drawing first, but could immediately work on the painting. This means that the model for this painting offered the wine with his right hand, instead of the somewhat awkward way in which Bacchus is using his left hand. Another reason to believe that Caravaggio was using a mirror for this painting is that after a cleaning of the painting a very small self-portrait of Caravaggio working on a painting was revealed in the reflection of the jug of wine (but it is difficult to see).
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Written by Eelco Kappe