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Bacchus (1497) is a marble sculpture by the Italian High Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect and poet Michelangelo. The statue is somewhat over life-size and depicts Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, in a revolutionary inebriated state. Along with the Pietà it is one of only two sculptures that can be attributed with any certainty to the artist's first period in Rome.

Bacchus is depicted with rolling eyes, his staggering body almost teetering off the rocky outcrop on which he stands. Sitting behind him is a faun, who eats the bunch of grapes slipping out of his left hand. The figure, with its swollen breast and abdomen, suggested to Giorgio Vasari "both the slenderness of a young man and the fleshiness and roundness of a woman", and its androgynous quality has often been noted (although the testicles are swollen as well). The inspiration for the work appears to be the description in Pliny the Elder's Natural History of a lost bronze sculpture by Praxiteles, depicting "Bacchus, Drunkenness and a satyr".[1]

Michelangelo gave the sculpture a high centre of gravity and reeling pose which, along with the symbolic wreath of vines, gives the impression of drink having 'gone to his head'. Similarly precarious poses can be found in a number of later works by the artist, most notably the David and the figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but the Bacchus was unprecedented, "in brief... it is not the image of a god".[2]

Bacchus holds in his right hand a goblet of wine and in his left a tigerskin, an animal associated with the god "for its love of the grape" (according to Michelangelo's biographer Ascanio Condivi). The hand holding the goblet was broken off and the penis chiselled away before Martin Heemskerck saw the sculpture in the 1530s, and only the goblet was restored, in the early 1550s; the mutilation may have been to give the sculpture the illusion of greater antiquity, placed as it initially was among an antique torso and fragmentary Roman reliefs in Jacopo Galli's Roman garden.[3] Such a concession to 'classical' sensibilities did not, however, convince Percy Bysshe Shelley of the work's fidelity to "the spirit and meaning of Bacchus". He wrote that "It looks drunken, brutal, and narrow-minded, and has an expression of dissoluteness the most revolting."[4]

The statue was commissioned for the garden of Cardinal Raffaele Riario[5] who intended for it to compliment his collection of classical sculptures. It was rejected by Cardinal Riario and by 1506[6] found its way to the collection of Jacopo Galli, banker to both the cardinal and Michelangelo, who had a similar garden near the Palazzo della Cancelleria. There it first appeared in a drawing by Martin Heemskerck, c. 1533-36.[7] The statue was bought for the Medici and transferred to Florence in 1572.


   1. ^ Luba Freedman, "Michelangelo's Reflections on Bacchus," Artibus et Historiae 24 No. 47 (2003:121-135), notes that several times during the Cinquecento, the Bacchus was classed among antiquities.
   2. ^ Johannes Wilde, Michelangelo: Six Lectures (Oxford University Press) 1978:33.
   3. ^ For Michelangelo as a forger of antiquities, and the Bacchus as an ambiguous work, intended "to tease the viewer with uncertainties as to whether it was ancient or modern," see Leonard Barkan, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture (New Haven/London) 1999:201-05.
   4. ^ The long tradition of negative reactions to the Bacchus is delineated in notes to Giorgio Vasari La Vita di Michelangelo... edited with commentary by Paola Barocchi (Milan 1962: II:62-67).
   5. ^ Michelangelo's official biographer, Ascanio Condivi, writing at Michelangelo's direct urging, mistakenly denies that Riario ever commissioned anything and attributes the commission to Galli; documents discovered in 1981 finally set the commission straight: Michael Hirst, "Michelangelo in Rome: an altarpiece and the 'Bacchus'"" The Burlington Magazine 123 (October 1981:581-93), especially Appendix C "Cardinal Riario and the 'Bacchus'".
   6. ^ Freedman 2003:124.
   7. ^ The sketchbook is in Berlin. Ralph Lieberman, "Regarding Michelangelo's 'Bacchus'", Artibus et Historiae 22 No. 43 (2001:65-74) p. 66 fig. 2; Lieberman analyzes the sculpture's "almost brutal realism" and "flawlessly controlled disequilibrium" (p 67), revealed in circling the sculpture..


    * Bull, Malcolm (2005). The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art. London: Penguin
    * Hall, James (2005). Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body. London: Chatto & Windus
    * Pope-Hennessy, John (1996). Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture. London: Phaidon. Catalogue volume, p. 9.
    * Symonds, John Addington. The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti. Project Gutenberg

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