Saturday, December 9, 2017



Between 1496-7 Michelangelo sculpts from one large block of marble two figures, the god Bacchus
and a companion satyr eating a bunch of grapes. Now in the Bargello Museum in Florence, the statue group was originally made for the light-filled courtyard of Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, the whole building originally owned by Cardinal Raffaele Riario (see a previous blog on the architecture of the courtyard):

As far as we know, Michelangelo's Bacchus was never placed in this courtyard, however, but remained in another Roman's antiquities garden, that of Jacopo Galli, who lived in a Palazzo nearby. Jacopo Galli's large palace no longer exists in Rome; it was torn down to make way for Via Vittorio Emmanuele in 1886. But we have Giuseppe Vasi's print of its location in Rome, carried out in 1774, that gives us a sense of how close Galli's palace was to that of Palazzo della Cancelleria: 
1 is Palazzo della Cancelleria
2 is Palazzetto dei Galli, Jacopo Galli's house

In the second view from above, 5 is the beginning of Palazzo della Cancelleria and 4 the Jacopo Galli
house. The number 1 situates the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso, which was part of the structure of the Palazzo, while 647 marks the light-filled courtyard.

In this photo below the name of Cardinal Riario is engraved into the travertine covering of his palazzo:

The Latin letters read: RAPHAEL RIARIUS SAVONENSIS (Raffaele Riario from Savona). His coat-of-arms is still on the building below the name, and you can see the five-petalled rose that was
the symbol of the Riario family as well as the cardinal hat and cross.

According to new research by Michael Hirst into Riario's accounts (he followed the money,) Michelangelo was paid for the statue of Bacchus entirely by Cardinal Raffaele Riario, who was one of the richest men in Rome.
Two portraits we know of Riario are:
Melozzo da Forli's of 1477, age 16                                      and Raphael's of 1512-14, age 54-6

Instead of living and working in the Cardinal's palace while he sculpted the statue, Michelangelo lodged and worked in the Palazzetto dei Galli, guest of Jacopo Galli. 

The statue of Bacchus was in Jacopo Galli's garden until 1572 when it was purchased by a Florentine member of the Medici family and brought to Florence, which explains why it is now in the Bargello, the repository of so many Medici artifacts. It is an historical mystery why the statue was made in Jacopo Galli's house but paid for by his neighbor in Rome. Before we explore the reasons, let us examine the work.

The figure of Bacchus is life-size, but because he stands on a pedestal, he seems taller and imposing. 
He holds in his right hand, lifted up as if toasting to something, a large decorated drinking cup.
He wears grape leaves, ivy leaves, and grapes in his hair, almost AS hair, and was one of
the models for Caravaggio's Bacchus a century later:
Since Dionysus/Bacchus was the ancient Greek and Roman god of wine, it is appropriate that he holds the drinking vessel, which the viewer assumes originally had wine in it, and the grapes which go into the making of wine are appropriate for decorating his head. Ivy was also sacred to the god. Appropriate, too, that the small satyr (half-goat, half boy)with pointed ears is about to munch on a bunch of grapes as he sits on the tree-trunk draped by the skin of a dead animal (Ascanio Condivi, one of Michelangelo's biographers, calls it a tiger) that is also held by the god. Satyrs were thought to be attendants of Bacchus, as were panthers and tigers.
The snout of the dead "tiger" projects over the side of the pedestal near the hooves of the satyr, and, with the satyr's goat legs, is a symbol of the wild side of animal nature that is unlocked by alcohol. According to Condivi, who had spoken to Michelangelo, the dead animal was to remind the viewer of the tragic end result of drinking too much since the tiger was said to be an overly avid lover of grapes. The animal is also there to establish the identity of the god, making the skin is as much an attribute as a spiked wheel is for St. Catherine. As an additional reminder of death, the dead skin gives to the statue the poignancy so often present in Michelangelo's works.
         If Michelangelo had been asked to carve a study in inebriation in human form, he could not have rendered it more carefully or fully. The stance of Bacchus is unsteady, his weight is on one foot and his body is swaying as if he is trying to catch and recover his composure.
 He has a beer belly from drinking too much alcohol,

 and his eyes look as if they are trying to focus on the cup and not succeeding,

certainly a state of mind familiar to all the undergraduates who have stood in front of him over the years. He is also the age of undergraduates, in his late teens, 18, Condivi says. His eyes gazing different directions, his unsteady gait, his lifting the drink in an unsure way, his mouth open as if wanting another taste, all contribute to the state of tipsiness or drunkenness that Michelangelo wanted to convey. Michelangelo could make the god of wine look disheveled, naked, off-kilter, because, as an ancient pagan deity, the figure did not have to adhere to the somber standards which the artist expected of his sculpted Christian subjects, such as Mary in the St. Peter's Pieta in Rome, begun after the Bacchus in 1498 for a different patron,

or of his Jewish subjects, such as Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, begun in 1513.

Serious moral authorities, these latter, not caught off balance by too much partying, caught off balance only by others' worshipping of idols, others' betrayal of goodness. That Michelangelo can switch from a pagan to a New Testament to an Old Testament subject with equally profound treatment is a testament to the historical and emotional range of his skill.

Two things to note about Michelangelo's Bacchus:

1) His presentation of the god is ORIGINAL. The precedent in ancient art for the figure of the god sculpted in this way does not exist.
Certainly ancient statues of Bacchic figures in Rome were available for Michelangelo to see, but none of them have the liveliness of his version:

Faun, Capitoline Museum       Antinous as Bacchus, Vatican            

                                         Hadrianic Bacchus from Tivoli, now Palazzo Nuovo, Capitoline

The one that is most similar in stance, if reversed, is now in Naples,


but even it has none of that "maraviglioso gesto di muoversi dentro quel sasso" ("a marvelous gesture of moving inside that stone," said originally by Vasari about Donatello's St. George) that is true of Michelangelo's god. Michelangelo's Bacchus seems alive in comparison with all of them and has a spirit that radiates the love of wine for which he existed.

2)  Jacopo Galli died in 1505, eight years after the completion of the statue. On his death one might imagine that Bacchus at that point would have been returned to Cardinal Riario, but the relatives of Jacopo Galli kept it. In 1517 Cardinal Riario was ousted from his Palazzo and forced into retirement in Naples, where he died in 1521. Even then, the statue did not revert to his heirs but remained with the Galli until it was brought up to Florence.We know that the statue was still in the Galli's antiquities' garden in 1532-35 because the Dutch artist Heemskerck made a sketch of it in situ:
You can see the statue standing in the middle of other ancient torsos and bas-reliefs; the satyr is there,
the head of the dead animal, and Bacchus is missing his right forearm, his penis, and the drinking vessel. Heemskerck also opens his mouth wider than the real statue, perhaps because the cup is missing.

We know that his arm and the drinking cup were restored in 1550, when Michelangelo was still alive, so it is probable that the artist himself restored it, but we have no documents telling us directly that that happened. In any case in the location surrounded by actual ancient objects, the statue would have
certainly provided Galli's guests with material for guessing which of the objects was modern, and would have opened up discussions about the artist's ability to rival ancient artists.

Though Condivi says that Michelangelo maintained that Cardinal Riario wasn't really interested in art as such, "poco s'intendesse o diletasse di statue" ("little did he understand anything or enjoy anything about statues,") two other reasons explain why the Bacchus was never moved to Palazzo della Cancelleria.

1) The Cardinal felt some responsibility for an incident in which Michelangelo was not properly paid for a statue bought by the Cardinal before the Bacchus. 
Earlier in 1496 Cardinal Riario had been looking around Rome for antiques with which to furnish his enormous palace, and he was shown a SLEEPING CUPID said to be antique by the dealer in Rome. Riario bought it for 200 ducats but then heard a rumor that the CUPID was not ancient but rather by a living Florentine. He sent Jacopo Galli as a spy to Florence to see what he could find out and Galli discovered that Michelangelo was the sculptor of the piece. Riario then retrieved his money from the dealer claiming fraud, but none of that money was then passed to Michelangelo. Instead Riario had Galli bring Michelangelo to Rome and promptly commissioned the Bacchus from him. (The CUPID was sold by the dealer to someone else as an antique and ended up in England where it probably perished in the fire in Whitehall Palace in 1598.) Michelangelo had become friends with Jacopo Galli during his visit to Florence, so when Michelangelo arrived in Rome, he was a guest in Galli’s house and worked on the statue there. Cardinal Riario, for his part, sent the artist some wine to encourage him in the subject.

        The confusion about Bacchus' patron stems from the fact that the artist himself does not make it clear who paid for the work. Michelangelo did not tell Vasari or Condivi that Riario paid him 150 ducats in three installments for the Bacchus; rather he tells Condivi that Galli “fece fare in casa sua,” ("he had him make it in his house.") While it is true that Galli had the artist carve the statue in his house, Galli was not the person who owned it. Michelangelo seems to be willing to let history think that Galli, his friend, was the patron. Was he angry about not having been paid properly for the CUPID and then paid less than 200 ducats for the Bacchus? Both Michelangelo and the Cardinal seem to feel guilty about their dealings. Riario knows he hasn't paid the artist his due. The artist, on the other hand, feels guilt that he had tried to sell the CUPID for an antique in the first place, since before sending it to Rome he had buried the sculpture in earth to make it look older so he could make more money.
2) But they both may have felt anxiety about the Bacchus because of another event that happened
in the summer of 1497, a scandal in Rome. One evening after a party of carousing in the Jewish quarter, Pope Alexander VI’s son, the Duke of Gandia, was stabbed and killed by one of his brothers. His body was found the next day in the Tiber River. The Jewish quarter is only a ten-minute walk from Palazzo della Cancelleria and so for Galli, Riario, and Michelangelo, it was a neighborhood murder.
See map, X to Y.
All of Rome was horrified by the murder, and especially the Pope, who went into mourning and issued new edicts forbidding clergy from participating in pagan events. In light of this murder, the dead animal skin held by Bacchus seems prophetic and timely. Death had been the result of too much drinking. To be fair, the Duke of Gandia, a married man, was said to have been sleeping with his brother’s wife, so alcohol may have only been one excuse for the murder, but the Pope’s reaction against paganism suggests he wanted a return to Christian morality. Whatever the case, both Michelangelo and the Cardinal were aware that their association with a pagan statue, especially of a drunken Bacchus, was not politically correct and could potentially be dangerous.

By 1503 Pope Alexander had died, Galli by 1505. By 1508 Michelangelo was at work on the Sistine Ceiling for Pope Julius II. Then when Julius' successor, Pope Leo X, was threatened by a conspiracy against him, he reacted by depriving the Cardinal Riario in 1517, of his Palazzo. Riario had to move in exile to Naples, never to return to Rome. We can imagine that the Cardinal kept waiting for a change in his fortune so that he could return to the Palazzo he had built. He may have thought that eventually he would come back to Rome, move back into his lodgings, and install finally the statue
he had had Michelangelo create for him. If the Bacchus had ever been placed in the courtyard,

he would have been a welcoming figure, inviting the visitors to the Palazzo to have a good time.
But the Cardinal never seemed to find a good moment for that drinking party, and he is prevented from bringing his new pagan purchase out into the light. In the end the statue became associated with death for both the Cardinal and Michelangelo because of the death of the Pope's son, and the death of the Cardinal's ownership of both statue and palace. But neither man was fully truthful about the pagan deity that lived in Galli's garden. In this particular case, Bacchus, the god of the truth-telling liquor, elicited lies even from the best of lips.