It’s odd how we often we look at things without seeing them, quite like I’ve looked at Bacchus and David and the Creation of Adam that’s painted upon the ceiling of Sistine chapel. We look at them and move on to the next creation by the artist…and then the next.
But among all the creations of Michelangelo, Bacchus left me moved.
This sculpture of the Roman god of wine and festivities is possibly the only one that does justice to him and his fine duties along with the Satyr that nibbles at the bunch of grapes that hang at the god’s side, and yet, it’s the sculpture for which Michelangelo wasn’t paid.
- Because Bacchus looked drunk and slightly out of control.
- Because Michelangelo had gone beyond what was required of him.
- Because in his depiction of Bacchus Michelangelo had broken the moral boundaries of his time.
But mostly because with Bacchus, Michelangelo had stretched limits of the ability expected from an artist at the time. He had given his figures an exalted form. That, or his lack of training in painting led him to paint somewhat elongated figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and the artists that came after him thought that elongation of bodies might be secret to his his success. Whatever the reason might have been, Michelangelo inadvertently started the Mannerist school of art, which El Greco took to perfection.
The wikipedia entry on Bacchus tells us…
“Commissioned by Raffaele Riario, a high-ranking Cardinal and collector of antique sculpture, it was rejected by him and was bought instead by Jacopo Galli, Riario’s banker and a friend to Michelangelo.”
I am not surprised that the gentleman who commissioned the sculpture decided not to put it in his courtyard. We don’t know whether it was because the god appeared drunken or because he wasn’t clothed. I’d say it must’ve been a bit of both. We know that after Michelangelo had finished “The Last Judgment” his work was denigrated by Cesna (the Papal Master of Ceremonies) and at a later date another artist Volterra was commissioned to cover the nakedness that disgraced the chapel. Volterra might not have envisioned how this particular commission would earn him a place in history, and a rather cute nickname that translates to knickers-maker.
Raffaele Riario who was a cardinal himself would obviously be averse to decorating his courtyard with a sculpture of a butt-naked god who looked, “drunken, brutal, and narrow-minded, and has an expression of dissoluteness the most revolting,” according to P.B. Shelley.
And yet, I believe that Bacchus is a master-piece – for it’s a manifestation of Michelangelo’s courage and imagination. Perhaps the first sculpture of its kind – the first to cast a god in the mold of a man both in body and spirit, and yet, it was rejected by the man who commissioned it. In the sixteenth century, an artist was more an illustrator of an idea who worked for a price and delivered per the requirement of the client. The artistic license that Michelangelo took with Bacchus must’ve caused him considerable inconvenience too.
It’s said that history has lessons for us.
One of the lessons to be learned here is that artists must sometimes rein-in their imagination, especially if they want to eat well. They must decide what kind of artist they want to be – Starving, Dying, Dead, or Rich.