I recently visited again the Bargello Museum in Florence, and was mesmerized by the Michelangelo sculptures on display.
I therefore decided to write one post for each, in the chronological order they were created. The first one is Bacchus as it was finished in 1497. Bacchus and St Peter’s Pieta are the only sculptures that can be attributed with certainty to Michelangelo’s Roman period.
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 Bacchus figure 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” (Source 1: Wikipedia)
Bacchus is more imaginative, experimental and inventive than either the Pieta or David, the two great sculptures with
which Michelangelo followed it. While the level of the carving and the resolution of compositional problems
in the Pieta is extraordinary by any criterion, the arrangement and attitude of the figures were not new; examples of the Virgin holding her dead son in her lap were known in Florentine painting at least a decade before Michelangelo began work on the group, and his apprenticeship as a painter in Ghirlandaio’s shop in the late 1480s would have made him
fully aware of them. David is astounding for his size, and for the skill with which Michelangelo overcame the difficulties of scale and of a shallow block, but the figure type is well known, and can be traced back through Donatello and Nicola Pisano to antique art. (Source 2: Ralph Lieberman, Regarding Michelagelo’s Bacchus)
In Michelangelo’s treatment, on the other hand, we understand from the figure’s reeling pose that he is experiencing the effects of his wine, and the stunning conjunction of character and behavior weds form to content at a level unknown in earlier Renaissance sculpture. Michelangelo’s profound exploration of the nature and personality of his subject led
him to create a figure difficult to accept by someone anticipating a more traditional representation, and Cardinal Riario was not prepared for a Bacchus who behaves in a drunken, indecorous way and who, “in brief…, is not the image of a god.” (Source 2)
The group is prophetic in that in Bacchus, and even more in the satyr who attends him, are to be discerned the origins of the figura serpentinata, to become familiar two generations later, but here the poses Michelangelo gave his figures do not make them exercises in elegant artifice; Bacchus himself is in some ways an example of almost brutal realism. (Source 2)
We see the young Michelangelo having fun, portraying the God of Wine in a drunken state. The God is tipsy turvy, but why not?
But Dionysus is not the only one having fun. The young Satyr glued to him is devouring a bunch of grapes, his facial expression being the one of utter pleasure.
In addition to the depiction of fun, we have a very sensual depiction of the human body.
Dionysus is depicted as a sensual, hedonistic creature, seeking pleasure in more than one ways.
Michelangelo has taken the Greek Classical style’s line perfection, added the expressibility and character of the Hellenistic period, and crowner everything with his own passion for life, founded on the belief that life is beautiful. After all, this is the work of a 21 year old genius.