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Bacchus in the Mirror of Caravaggio

Updated on April 24, 2014
Caravaggio, Bacchus (a. 1596), detail
Caravaggio, Bacchus (a. 1596), detail | Source

Master of Escape

Portrait of Caravaggio (detail), by Ottavio Leoni (a. 1621)
Portrait of Caravaggio (detail), by Ottavio Leoni (a. 1621) | Source

The life of Michelangelo Merisi (Milano, 1571 – Porto Ercole, 1610), known as Caravaggio from the name of the small city where he was thought to be born, is full of escapes. He left Milano at the age of twenty, to seek his fortune in Rome (or maybe, to escape some danger?). He effectively found fame and wealth in Rome, but he had to flee in 1606 to escape the death sentence after killing a man in a brawl. He took refuge in Naples and then in Malta, where he became Knight of the Order. But there, he was arrested in unclear circumstances. He was able to evade and escaped to Siracusa. He was then in Messina and again in Naples. At last, in 1610, when a messanger brought him the news of the Pope’s forgiveness for the murder of four years earlier, he embarked from Naples to Rome. He was found died on the beach of Porto Ercole, once again mysteriously, before he could reach Rome. Anyway, he left the signs of his art everywhere he was.

Painter of the True

Caravaggio’s life has been mysterious and adventurous at least as his artistic work. His dramatically innovative usage of the light, his exact rendering of every trivial particular surpassed the canons of Mannerism and opened the doors to the Baroque art and, even more, to a new way of seeing and representing the reality. However, the strong charge of innovation he brought into the way of painting caused him both a great success in his life and the fair criticism of his opponents. He never established a school and did not have a generation of pupils that could preserve the memory of his work. The group of his followers run out after artists such as Bartolomeo Manfredi, Carlo Saraceni, Orazio Gentileschi, leaving the field to his detractors So, despite the deep influence he had in fact on the renovation of painting for at least two centuries and the favour he had encountered in his life, his name was soon forgotten. Only in the mid 1900s, thanks to the work of scholars such as Longhi and Arcangeli, the importance of his role was fully recognized. Two facts are significant, in this respect. The first is that the canvas of Bacchus had lain forgotten in the Uffizi deposits until 1916. The second, that in 1994, as a recognition of Caravaggio’s role in renovating the art, his face and two of his famous works (the Fortune Teller and the Basket of Fruits) were represented on the Italian banknote of 100,000 lire. It was one of the largest denominations, abandoned only when Euro was adopted.

A Photographic Technique

Caravaggio’s turbulent life (he killed a man in a brawl and several times was a guest of the Roman prisons) and the misunderstanding about his technique may also have contributed to the early blurring of his memory. Scholars have ascertained that he did not make use of preparatory panels. The traces of drawing are nearly absent on his works. Probably, he used to carve the canvas to delimitate the space for the figures, that he made to pose and placed on the canvas one at a time. To better manage the transposition of the models on the canvas, as it is attested by his biographer and rival Baglione, Caravaggio used mirrors which avoided he to turn the head from the painting. The results of this process had to be astonishing to his contemporaries. In fact, pictures such as the Musicians, the Boy with a Basket of Fruits, the Bacchus or the Lute Player, with their flat background, the indoor setting, the oblique lighting evidencing the crudest details, look more similar to a photographic set rather than to a traditional picture, studied through a long preparatory drawing, as Vasari taught. It was a revolution not so easy to be assimilated in the Roman environment dominated by the mannerist style. Fortunately, this new way found the favour of a refined character such as the cardinal Del Monte, who discovered him while, desperately poor, he was working for a cheapish painter with his equally desperate friend, the Sicilian painter Mario Minniti.

Michelangelo, Bacchus (a. 1497), Florence Museum of the Bargello
Michelangelo, Bacchus (a. 1497), Florence Museum of the Bargello | Source

Bacchus Before Caravaggio

The two Bacchus painted by Caravaggio, the Young Sick Bacchus and the Bacchus, belong to the period 1593-1597. They attest the great change that Caravaggio’s life had experienced in these few years. The first of the two, the Sick Bacchus, dated 1593-1594, reflects the period of the misery, when the painter, ill, was admitted in the hospital for the poor. Caravaggio portraits himself in a Bacchus with a livid face, showing the signs of the jaundice, as it has been diagnosed by the experts who have examined the painting. In the second one, the situation is completely reversed. The painter is now hosted in the palace of the cardinal Del Monte, a fine environment frequented by musicians and art lovers. This new Bacchus is a languid youth who holds a glass of wine and seems willing to offer himself to the spectator. But the two Bacchus share the same feature: far from being the image of a god, they represent a real man, poor and ill in the first case, young and ambiguous in the second one.

Bacchus, the god of the wine, is the Latin version of the Greek god Dionysus. He is traditionally represented as a handsome boy with long blond hair, accompanied by the symbols of his divinity: vine leaves, bunches of grapes, wine. In the Titian’s painting Bacchus and Ariadne (a. 1520) the god is figured with his grotesque followers (satyrs, fauns, animals…), in mid-air, while is getting off the wagon to reach Ariadne, desperate because of the departure of the loved Theseus.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne (1520), London National Gallery
Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne (1520), London National Gallery | Source

The Michelangelo’s Bacchus (dated around 1497) seems to be the nearest reference to the Bacchus by Caravaggio. Michelangelo figures the god in a scarcely divine way, as a young drunk in a precarious equilibrium. The satyr behind him takes advantage of his condition and eats the grapes he holds in the left hand. The Bacchus is holding a cup of wine with a gesture which may have inspired Caravaggio, although his Bacchus holds the cup by the left hand.

The Young Sick Bacchus

Caravaggio, Young Sick Bacchus (a. 1593), Rome Galleria Borghese
Caravaggio, Young Sick Bacchus (a. 1593), Rome Galleria Borghese | Source

If we look to the Sick Bacchus, we notice the extremely sober environment (a table with a still life reduced to two fruits and a bunch of red grapes) and the torsion of the Bacchus, which makes more evident the pale skin of the face and the deep gaze directed towards the observer. The picture is generally considered a self portrait, dating back to the first Roman period, when he was ill and had to stay several months at the hospital for the poor. Bacchus holds a bunch of white grapes in his hands. We note a rot grain in the bunch, attacked by a worm. Characteristic that we will find in all the other still lifes by the artist: the fruits are painted with a meticulous realism, which makes evident also the faulty parts, as to recall the caducity of the life. Bacchus tightens the grape and seems to want to take it to his chest, as if it were the essential nutrient of his heart. This simple gesture moves the attention from the wine (which does not appear in the painting) to the fruits which give life to it. As to say: from civilisation to the nature.

The Bacchus

Caravaggio, Bacchus (a. 1596), Florence Uffizi
Caravaggio, Bacchus (a. 1596), Florence Uffizi | Source

Painter Photographer

The technique of Caravaggio has provoked many discussion. The attention to all details of reality, the study of the light and the pose of the characters, the ability to catch and represent an exact instant, may make his paintings close to photography. It is known from one of his first biographers (the painter Giovanni Baglione) that he used mirrors. The exams on his paintings have revealed that he did not make use of drawing. On the other hand, we do not know preparatory panels by him. Some scholars (e.g. Roberta Lapucci) have suggested that he really adopted some “camera obscura” technique, projecting the figures of his models and fixing them on the canvas by the use of some material sensible to the light. Anyway, many contemporary photographers and film makers (such as Martin SCorsese) consider his works a still powerful source of inspiration.

Caravaggio comes back to the representation of Bacchus around 1596. He is hosted in the Madama palace (the actual seat of the Italian Senate), where his protector, the cardinal Del Monte, conducts a small court of intellectuals, lovers of the arts as well as the science. This change is also visible in the subjects of his paintings: the street scenes represented in the Fortune Teller and the Cardsharps give place to the indoor fine pictures of the Musicians and the Lute Player: languid boys dressed in tunics which leave the shoulders bare. The sober Bacchus of the first period follows the same metamorphosis. Now he is a boy adorned with leaves of vine, wearing a tunic with a large drapery, who holds a cup of wine poured from a bottle. The small bubbles in the bottle and the circles at the surface of the liquid in the glass demonstrate that the wine has just been poured: the scene is still alive and it takes place under the eyes of the spectator. The gesture of Bacchus, with dirty fingernails, bleary-eyed from the wine and red cheeks, invites to share his drink in the same exact moment that the observer looks at the picture. Of course, also the still life on the table has been enriched: now it is a basket of fruits where we can see apples, figs, plums as well as grapes. Some fruits are in a state of decomposition. The cleaning of the painting has brought to the light in the carafe a small self portrait of Caravaggio painting at the easel. The model for Bacchus has been identified as the Sicilian painter Mario Minniti, a friend of Caravaggio who had shared with him the poor life of the first years in Rome. Minniti also appears in the Musicians and in the Lute Player.

Caravaggio, Bacchus, detail of the basket of fruits
Caravaggio, Bacchus, detail of the basket of fruits | Source

The Still Life in Bacchus and in the Other Early Works

The still lifes that appear in the first and the second Bacchus are not isolated. Still lifes of fruits or flowers are present in several other paintings of the early period: the Boy with a Basket of Fruits, the Lute Player, the Boy Bitten by a Lizard. In all these works, compositions of fruits or flowers or even musical instruments appear as complementary elements of the human figure. With the exception of the ultra sober grapes of the Young Sick Bacchus, these compositions typically include a basket of fruits or a carafe with flowers (as in the Lute Player and the Boy Bitten by a Lizard) or wine, as in the Bacchus. These are the themes that Caravaggio loves to represent: the basket of wicker (or exceptionally of porcelain, such as in the Bacchus) or the carafe full of water or wine where he plays to reflect a windows or to hide his own self portrait. All details are always rendered with a “maniacal” realism, including the imperfections of the leaves and the holes on the fruits, which attest the corruptible nature of the material.

Caravaggio, Boy Bitten by a Lizard (a. 1595), Florence Fondazione Longhi
Caravaggio, Boy Bitten by a Lizard (a. 1595), Florence Fondazione Longhi | Source
Caravaggio, The Lute Player (detail), St. Petersburg Hermitage
Caravaggio, The Lute Player (detail), St. Petersburg Hermitage | Source

In Rome, after the lesson of Raphael and Michelangelo, continued by the Mannerists, the still life was considered of secondary importance with respect to the human figure. However, in Lombardy, where Caravaggio had formed at the workshop of Simone Peterzano, under the school of Leonardo and the Venetians, the collectors did not dislike this genre of Flemish origin. When Caravaggio arrived in Rome, he mastered the technique of the still life, as it is attested by the Boy with a Basket of Fruits (one of his first works) and by the fact, maybe little gratifying, that one of his Roman masters, the powerful Giuseppe Cesari, had put him, in his workshop, to paint only flowers and fruits.

After all these works where the still life is just complementary to the human figure, at last in 1597-1598 or somewhat later, Caravaggio paints his only known full still-life. He chooses the loved theme of the basket of fruits and gives it the centre of the scene, leaving out every human figure. The result is simple and fascinating at the same time. The representation is so realistic, that scholars have been able to detect the exact variety of each fruit and the disease which affects the leaves. It is curious that after this painting, the still life disappears from the repertoire of the painter. With the only exception of Supper at Emmaus (1601) where a nearly identical basket appears, in nearly the same position, on the table of Christ.

That’s the True, Baby!

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruits (a. 1597), Milano Biblioteca Ambrosiana
Caravaggio, Basket of Fruits (a. 1597), Milano Biblioteca Ambrosiana | Source

I saw an image of this painting on one of my school books when I was a child. I remember that I was amazed by the realism of the fruits and the leaves and I could not believe that it was a painting and not a photograph. In fact, it was unimaginable in Rome in those days that a still life could obtain the same importance than a painting of figures. This picture demonstrates that something revolutionary was happening in the art: the true was occupying the canvas with all the ugly and dirty details which form it.


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