Bacchus is Michelangelo´s first important statue and one of the few he ever finished; and many of the people who love his work are sorry he did it.
Bacchus (1497) by Michelangelo (203 cm), in the Bargello Museum, Florence, Italy; a Wikimedia Commons photo published here
The empty, foolish look in the young Bacchus´s face, the way the head sits on the thick neck—as if it were stuck on wrong after having fallen off; the stiffness of the leg that carries the weight; the strange mixture (“A blend of sexes”, says Vasari) of brawn and flab—you would have thought Michelangelo was incapable of making such errors, such aesthetic errors. How could the man with the soundest artistic judgment of all times have let those pass? Sublime figures he left unfinished; this one he finished all too carefully and polished into silliness.
It´s just this figure, along with a few of the painted demons and damned on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, that turn a critic like John Ruskin away from Michelangelo. “What is the most important thing in a figure?” he says. “The face. We can´t relate to the rest of the body as we can the face. That´s the window to the spirit inside and it gives the whole character to the work. Michelangelo´s faces—look at them—are all coarse, unintelligent. They are the face of vice, even of crime.”
Even Michelangelo´s other biographer, Condivi, admits that “the eyes are dim and lewd”.
Stendhal thought the face was “coarse and without charm.”
Shelley, the English poet, wrote: “The countenance of this figure is the most revolting mistake of the spirit and meaning of Bacchus. It looks drunken, brutal, and narrow-minded, and has an expression of dissoluteness the most revolting.”
What went wrong? Perhaps Michelangelo made the mistake that nearly all artists make until they learn their lesson: to listen too closely to the customer instead of to themselves alone. Jacobo Galli wanted the figure for his garden. He no doubt wanted to evoke good old Roman decadence. The idea may have been his—he may have encouraged Michelangelo to do the foolish thing: to make a drunken statue of the god of wine—to make him look dizzy and off-balance. Michelangelo had been looking frantically for ways to put life into his figures and he may have let himself be convinced that Galli´s idea would work. The “blend of sexes” had often been done before—Bacchus is often represented as chubby and lewd. But a figure that looks tipsy?—that would be curious, funny.
The work looks very much like Roman statuary from the worst period. Up to then, everything the young Michelangelo had done (now he was twenty-two) was a take-off on, or a frank imitation of, Roman art. Cupids were obviously in fashion and he did Cupids. “You who did the Cupid so well, could you do me a Bacchus?” Galli asked him. “Look at the Bacchus on this old sarcophagus—that will give you an idea.”
And while Michelangelo was working on the clay model Galli marvelled at it left and right but said: “Why don´t you make him drunk? He´s the god of wine, isn´t he? Did you ever see a statue of a drunk? I think that would be marvellous. But you´re the artist—I don´t understand these things. I suppose that couldn´t be done.”
And did Michelangelo say: “ You better believe it can be done. I´ll make him stagger. I´ll make him stinking drunk, spilling his wine and ready to heave”?