Drunk and disorderly: Michelangelo’s Bacchus

Whether an inspiring portrayal of inebriation’s ‘divine madness,’ a study of alcoholic dissipation, or a controversial depiction of same-sex desire, the sculptor’s statue has divided both collectors and critics down the centuries.
Michelangelo's Bacchus. Image credit: creative commons
Michelangelo's Bacchus. Image credit: creative commons
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Of all Michelangelo’s works, none makes the head spin quite like the Bacchus (Florence: Museo Nazionale di Bargello). Standing a little over two metres high, it is a paean to drunkenness. The god, who has obviously had one too many, is struggling to keep his balance. As he tries to lift his right foot off the ground, his weight slips clumsily onto the left, pushing his hips forward and giving his belly a strangely distended appearance. Around his head, he wears a garland of vine leaves, while his mouth flops open and his eyes flash lasciviously. Perhaps in an effort to steady himself, he leans towards a tree trunk – but seems completely oblivious of the cheeky faun pinching his grapes as he does so. 

It is a virtuoso piece. In Michelangelo’s hands, unyielding marble is made to reel and wobble; while in the god’s clumsiness, there is an almost graceful sprezzatura. But to the man who commissioned it, it simply wasn’t up to scratch. The circumstances were, admittedly, unusual. Back in early 1496, Michelangelo had carved a Cupid which looked so much like an ancient statue that he was persuaded to try passing it off as a genuine antique. This may have been meant as a joke; but Michelangelo’s acquaintance, Baldassare del Milanese, somehow managed to sell it to Cardinal Raffaele Riario (1461-1521), one of Rome’s most discerning collectors. When Riario discovered he had been tricked, he was furious. His agents forced Baldassare to take the work back and refund the money. But Riario was so impressed with Michelangelo’s talent that he invited the artist to Rome – and commissioned him to sculpt a Bacchus. Accepting with alacrity, Michelangelo made rapid progress. Judging by the stage that payments were made, Riario was happy with how the statue was coming along. But the moment it was finished, Riario rejected it. The question is: why?

It’s possible the Bacchus was just not ‘antique’ enough. Given Riario’s experience with the Cupid, he was probably expecting a statue that could be mistaken for a genuine antiquity – and may have felt the finished product was simply too ‘modern’ for his tastes. This could have been because of its attributes. As the art historian Luba Freedman has pointed out, Michelangelo’s statue does indeed differ from classical depictions of Bacchus in a few minor respects (e.g. short, rather than long hair, and vine leaves instead of ivy). But not everyone seems to have felt this way. In fact, many of Michelangelo’s contemporaries actually praised the statue’s classicism. His biographer, Ascanio Condivi (1525-74), claimed that it ‘corresponded in every particular to the writers of antiquity.’ This may suggest that, if Riario didreject the Bacchus for its ‘modernity’, it had less to do with how faithfully the statue reflected ancient descriptions than with how it differed from Riario’s expectations of what a classical god should look like. 

It has sometimes been said – most notably by the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley – that the Bacchus’ drunkenness was its most unsettling feature. As Michelangelo and Riario both knew, there was nothing inaccurate or even unusual about drunkenness per se. Bacchus was, after all, the god of wine. According to the Homeric Hymns, it was he who introduced men to the fruits of the vine. For this reason, he was known as the ‘drunken god.’ He sometimes appeared in this guise in ancient art. In the third or fourth century, Callistratus described an ‘Indian’ statue of a god identified with Dionysus (Bacchus) being overcome by drunkenness. He was occasionally portrayed in a similar way during the Renaissance, too. Shortly before Michelangelo finished the Bacchus, Andrea Mantegna produced a pair of engravings inspired by Roman sarcophagi which showed him in a state of inebriation.

What mattered was the meaning of Bacchus’ drunkenness – and this was where opinions differed. One tradition saw it as a positive thing. In late fifteenth century, Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), argued that Bacchus’ drunkenness was a form of divine madness, which offered a route to heavenly inspiration. Another took a more negative view. A few decades later, Mario Equicola (c.1470-1525) noted that excessive consumption gave a fetid breath and dulled the memory; while the Church Fathers warned that it was a gateway to sin.

Riario was not a dogmatic man, either in art or religion. If he could have put a positive interpretation on the Bacchus’ drunkenness, he probably would have done. But Michelangelo hadn’t made it easy. While amply attested in classical texts, the god’s clumsy gait and lecherous gaze were more suggestive of dissipation than inspiration.  And what may have troubled Riario even more was the Bacchus’ effeminacy.

This often caught the eye of Renaissance viewers. Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) noted that Michelangelo had given Bacchus ‘the slenderness of youth, combined with the fullness and roundness of the female form,’ while Francesco Bocchi (1548-c.1613/18) remarked on the god’s great feminine beauty. Certainly, many of the statue’s features would have looked oddly female at the time. The belly is elongated, the limbs are curvy, the garlands in the hair resemble tresses, and there is a softness to the face.  

Like Bacchus’ drunkenness, this had a basis in classical literature. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus, Hermes persuaded Ino and Athamas to ‘bring him up as a girl,’ Ovid claimed that pirates found the god ‘as pretty as a girl;’ and Euripides’ Bacchae sees him disguise himself as a woman.

In itself, this needn’t have been too much of a problem. Although some Renaissance authors treated it as a mark of moral decay, others, such as Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) saw the mingling of male and female characteristics as producing a perfect harmony between opposing temperaments. But what might have been a bigger problem was the fact that many classical mythographers also associated Bacchus’ effeminacy with homosexual acts. Ovid’s Fasti, for example, speaks of the god’s love for ‘beardless Ameplos;’ and Pseudo-Hyginus writes that he slept with Polymnus in return for a favour. This may have suggested that not only was Michelangelo’s Bacchus drunk – but that he was also consumed by homosexual desire as a result.

Needless to say, homosexuality was not unknown in Renaissance Italy. As the historian Michael Rocke has noted, it was a familiar part of life in Michelangelo’s native Florence. What’s more, Michelangelo himself was probably gay. But the Church still regarded it as a sin – and the law treated it as a crime. It was certainly not something that Cardinal Riario would have expected, or wanted, to find reflected in a statue of a god.

Like many of his contemporaries, he still had a tendency to see the ‘rebirth’ of ancient art and literature through a Christian lens; and while he was happy to interpret many pagan myths allegorically, associations like this simply couldn’t be explained away – let alone made to fit with Christian morality. However accurately the Bacchus reflected classical descriptions, therefore, he probably found it just too different from an ‘acceptable’ version of a classical god.

For Michelangelo, it was doubtless a difficult pill to swallow. Though his statue was later acquired by a wealthy banker, Jacopo Gallo, he had lost an important patron – and been badly hurt in the process. Yet by unpicking the painful reasons for Riario’s rejection of the Bacchus, we can see more clearly how contentious the Renaissance revival of antiquity could be – and how daringly original Michelangelo’s genius really was.

Alexander Lee

Dr Alexander Lee is a research fellow at the University of Warwick and the author of Machiavelli: His Life and Times (London: Picador, 2020).

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