Saturday, August 7, 2010


"Bring on the women and the dwarves!"

Bacchus was painted sometime around 1595 by Italian Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. You can see this painting in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, Italy.

Bacchus (known in Ancient Greece as Dionysus, Διόνυσος) is the Ancient Roman god of wine, the vintage, and drunkeness, wine cups, inspirational ritual madness, joyful worship, and ecstasy, wine, grapes, theater, wineskins, and fertility. Did I mention wine? The contemporary carnival celebrations of Europe, South America and even the Mardi Gras of New Orleans are in actuality modern day incarnations of the ancient Roman Bacchanalia.

I would present the Greek statue of Dionysus but I am not comfortable enough in my masculinity to post it here. - S.L.

The painting shows a youthful Bacchus reclining in classical fashion with grapes and vine leaves in his hair, fingering the drawstring of his loosely-draped robe. On a stone table in front of him is a bowl of fruit and a large carafe of red wine; with his left hand he holds out to the viewer a shallow goblet of the same wine, apparently inviting the viewer to join him.

Whether intentional or not, there is humour in this painting. The pink-faced Bacchus is an accurate portrayal of a half-drunk teenager dressed in a sheet and leaning on a mattress, but far less convincing as a Graeco-Roman god. The carafe has attracted more scholarly attention than Bacchus himself, because after the painting was cleaned, a tiny portrait of the artist working at his easel was discovered in the reflection on the glass. A reflection of Bacchus' face can also be seen on the surface of the wine in the glass he is holding.

Bacchus' offering of the wine with his left hand - despite the obvious effort this would have caused the model - has led to speculation that Caravaggio used a mirror to assist himself while working from life, doing away with the need for drawing. In other words, what appears to us as the boy's left hand was actually the artist's right.

For anyone who has ever attended Mardi Gras; take the drunkeness, gratuitous nudity, open promiscuity and sheer madness of that event, amp it up at least a tenfold and you can begin to imagine what the Roman celebration of Bacchus must have been like.

Is it just me, or does anyone else sense a similarity here? - Sean Linnane


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