Caravaggio interprets Bacchus

“All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography”

-Federico Fellini

Pearl inside of an oyster

Caravaggio, whose real name is believed to be Michelangelo Merisi, whose private life was full of promiscuity and scandal, who spent his later life fleeing a death sentence for murder, and who was to become one of the most celebrated Italian painters of all time, interprets Bacchus, God of wine, twice in his painting career.

Self Portrait of Caravaggio
Self portrait of Caravaggio

The first, painted in 1593 and entitled Bacchino Malato, is weak and suffering, portraying signs of illness. The second, painted in 1596 and entitled Il Bacco, instead is in flourishing health, perhaps even intoxicated, and in the act of offering a glass of wine. Both are provocative, one seeming to appeal to our sympathy, the other to our desire. Both are partially clothed adolescent boys with languid eyes and cunning smiles. Both are alluringly seductive and vividly allusive, full of contrasts and ironic in tone.

Interestingly enough, both are also presumed to be self portraits which Caravaggio painted with the use of mirrors. Why would the artist re-figure himself as Bacchus twice, and what do the differences in the two paintings reveal about his life and the world around him?

Statue of Bacchus, God of wine
Classic depiction of Bacchus, God of wine and harvest adopted from the Greek God, Dionysus

Bacchus is the symbol of abundance, celebration and joy, but also madness, ecstasy and depravity. He is iconic of controversial rituals celebrating pleasure and inebriation; a divine figure that is at once sacred and profane. Much of Caravaggio’s work is characterised by this tension between what is divine, powerful and absolute and what is, on the other hand, frail, corruptible, and ultimately human.

We know that Bacchino Malato was painted during a period of convalescence after an acute injury, and that Il Bacco was painted during a period of prosperity and fortune for the artist, but perhaps what is more revealing is the way in which the artist saw the world and potrayed the human condition.

If all art be autobiographical, it is the artist’s rendering of his/her experience which is not only a reflection of an individual’s life, but also a reflection of our own in as much as we see ourselves, and the world around us, reflected in it. Furthermore, the choice of subject in Bacchus, God of wine, adds to the rich, cultural history of wine and the sociological relevance it has had in our lives for centuries.

To read more about these two compelling paintings, you can find my full articles on Club del Vino by clicking the links below:

Young Sick Bacchus
Young Sick Bacchus, Caravaggio, 1593-94, 67 x 53 cm, oil on canvas, Galleria Borghese, Rome

Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus: Nobel Rot and Vice

Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus, known also as Bacchino Malato, is an alluring portrayal of illness and vice. Darkened by suffering, it seems nonetheless also illuminated by lust, gluttony and pride. The painting’s own history is interwoven in wrath, envy and greed. In fact, of the seven deadly sins perhaps only sloth can not be said to belong to such a vivid, if not tainted, representation of Bacchus: god of wine, debauchery and abandon…


Bacchus, Caravaggio
Bacchus, Caravaggio, 1595-96, 95 x 85 cm, oil on canvas, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


Caravaggio’s Ironic Bacchus

With a dynamic play of light and shadow, Caravaggio’s paintings seem to spring out suddenly from the canvas, capturing the spontaneity of a moment with all the emotions and sensations involved. His realism is violently visceral in its suddenness found in expressions that deform the face, in ripe and succulent fruit that is starting to rot, and in gestures that are dramatic or tender, but never banal. They offer a vision of humanity which is raw, sometimes full of suffering, other times full of ecstasy, but above all fleeting, where life, intense in as much as it is delicate, is always framed by the nearness of death…

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