Bacchus (Michelangelo)

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Michelangelo Bacchus.jpg
Dimensions203 cm (80 in)
LocationMuseo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

Bacchus (1496–1497)[1] 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 reeling pose suggestive of drunkenness. 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. Together with the Pietà the Bacchus is one of only two surviving sculptures from 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 Bacchus's left hand. With its swollen breast and abdomen, the figure of Bacchus 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".[2] The sense of precariousness resulting from a high centre of gravity can be found in a number of later works by the artist, most notably the David and the figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Drawing of the Bacchus in the sculpture garden of Jacopo Galli by Maarten van Heemskerck, c. 1533–1536

Michelangelo depicts Bacchus through symbolism with the grape leaves and drinking cup to express his drunkenness.[3] Bacchus wears a wreath of ivy leaves, as that plant was sacred to the god. (They are not, as is often supposed, vine leaves.)[4] In his right hand he holds a goblet of wine and in his left the skin of a tiger, an animal associated with Bacchus "for its love of the grape" (according to Michelangelo's biographer Ascanio Condivi). The hand holding the goblet was broken off and the penis chiseled away before Maarten van Heemskerck saw the sculpture in the 1530s. Only the goblet was restored, in the early 1550s. The mutilation may have been to give the sculpture an illusion of greater antiquity, placed as it initially was among an antique torso and fragmentary Roman reliefs in Jacopo Galli's Roman garden.[5] 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".[6] The art historian Johannes Wilde summarised responses to the sculpture thus: "in brief... it is not the image of a god".[7]

The statue was commissioned for the garden of Cardinal Raffaele Riario[8] who intended for it to complement his collection of classical sculptures. It was rejected by Cardinal Riario and by 1506[9] 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 Maarten van Heemskerck, c. 1533–1536.[10] The statue was bought for the Medici and transferred to Florence in 1572.


  1. ^ The account books of Baldassare and Giovanni Balducci, bankers to Cardinal Riario, indicate that the work was executed between summer 1496 and summer 1497. See p. 93 of Michael Hirst, "Michelangelo in Rome: an altarpiece and the 'Bacchus'" The Burlington Magazine 123 (October 1981:581-93)
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Lieberman, Ralph (2001). "Regarding Michelangelo's 'Bacchus". Artibus et Historiae. 22 (43): 65–74. doi:10.2307/1483653. JSTOR 1483653.
  4. ^ Hirst & Dunkerton 1994, p. 75 n.27
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ 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).
  7. ^ Johannes Wilde, Michelangelo: Six Lectures (Oxford University Press) 1978:33.
  8. ^ 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: see Hirst op. cit., especially Appendix C "Cardinal Riario and the 'Bacchus'".
  9. ^ Freedman 2003:124.
  10. ^ 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
  • Hirst, Michael; Dunkerton, Jill (1994). Making and Meaning: The Young Michelangelo. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • 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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