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Michaelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, Bacchus, 1595
By Bhux

Considered a masterpiece of the Italian Baroque period, Bacchus portrays the young god in an unusual way for the time. Caravaggio takes this unconventional approach to humanize the god by placing him in a comfortable and intimate setting. One of Caravaggio’s earlier works, it shows his interest in naturalism. The god is not shown with heavenly details or divine characteristics. Instead, he is a round-faced, rosy-cheeked, drunken teenager. He holds a strange, shallow wine glass in an extended hand as if to hand it to the viewer. Caravaggio utilizes a dark background comprised of earth tones instead of the traditional landscapes that were used at the time. The darkness contrasts sharply with the cascading white fabric that falls gently on Bacchus. He emphasizes the humanity of Bacchus instead of focusing on sumptuous ornamentation. Caravaggio chooses to add humanizing details to the scene by placing Bacchus in front of a rotting bowl of fruit and giving him dirty fingertips. The bowl of wilting fruit it thought to be a vanitas symbol. It is meant to show the fleetingness of time and futility of life on Earth. The bowl serves as a reminder for the viewer of the endless cycle of death and rebirth. By showing him in an earthly and hospitable form, Caravaggio welcomes the viewer into the scene to join Bacchus for drinks in the informal and warm room.

Caravaggio's use of mirrors and reflections is not immediately obvious in Bacchus. It is speculated that the artist sat in front of a mirror and used himself as the model for Bacchus. Bacchus holds his wine in his left hand in a position that would be hard to hold for someone who was right handed. Caravaggio painting his reflection in a piece of glass is one possible explanation to the mysterious gesture. On close inspection, one can also see Bacchus’s reflection within his glass of wine. Another strange detail of Bacchus is the alleged self-portrait on the glass in the bottom left corner that was not spotted until 1922. Immediately to the right of the circular light smudge is an extremely faint outline of a man. Art historians believe is was once clearly visible but after years of damaging restorations, it has nearly vanished. A layer of paint was added in one restoration which has left the portrait practically invisible to the naked eye. Using a special x-ray type machine, historians were able to see through several layers of paint to get a more clear image of the portrait. Through this technique, they were able to confirm rumors of a secret portrait hiding on the wine glass, but are still unable to be certain that it is of Caravaggio. Caravaggio takes his interest in reflections even further by painting a self portrait of him painting the subject in the reflection of the extended wine glass. However, I personally had a difficult time finding anything on the glass that resembled this. Still full of unanswered questions, Caravaggio’s Bacchus continues to mystify art historians and viewers alike even centuries after its completion.

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