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Five hundred years ago Michelangelo unveiled what would come to be regarded as one of the world’s great works of art. It was with Bacchus, his first heroic sized sculpture, that Michelangelo’s reputation as the world’s supreme sculptor began.
Regarding Michelangelo’s Bacchus, Georgio Vasari the art historian wrote:
“The Bacchus proved Michelangelo’s superiority to all of his contemporary sculptors. During his stay in Rome his conceptions were marvelous, and he executed difficulties with the utmost ease, when they were done the works of others appeared as nothing beside them.”
Now, this masterpiece has been recreated from a mold derived from the original. This posthumous Bacchus is a precise 1:1 casting that is faithful to Michelangelo’s original. Some minor historical damage to the original marble has been carefully restored in this sculpture.
The Bacchus dates from Michelangelo’s first visit to Rome when he was studying classical sculpture more intensely than at any other time of his life. The notice that one of his sculptures, a Sleeping Cupid, had been falsely sold as an antique to an important collector, Cardinal Raffaello Riario, had occasioned his hasty departure from Florence in the summer of 1496. He relates the success of his encounter with the cardinal in a letter of 2 July 1496 to Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de’ Medici in Florence.
We arrived safely last Saturday and at once went to call upon the Cardinal di San Giorgio [Raffaello Riario, 1450-1521]. He seemed pleased to see me and immediately desired me to go and look at certain figures in his collection; this took me all day…. Then the Cardinal asked me whether I had the courage enough to attempt some work of art of my own. I replied that I could not do anything as fine, but that he should see what I could do. We have bought a piece of marble for a life-sized figure and on Monday I shall begin work.
The records show that from July 1496 to July 1497, Cardinal Riario disbursed a series of payments for this statue, now identified as the Bacchus. As early as 1506, however, the sculpture is cited in the courtyard of the banker Jacopo Gallo – not Riario’s. Though Condivi, Michelangelo’s biographer, claims that Gallo commissioned the Bacchus, the conclusion seems inescapable that it was first declined by the cardinal.
It is entirely in Michelangelo’s character that the memory of this slight remained with him for fully fifty years. Late in life, he instructed Condivi to Riario as a man with “little understanding or enjoyment of sculpture”. But Riario harbored a deep appreciation of classical sculpture; if he failed to appreciate the Bacchus, it was simply because it was too original, too new.
Artist: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (Florence 1475-1564 Rome)