The Museo Nazionale or the Bargello: the Bacchus of Michelangelo and Jacopo Sansovino 1/3

The Bargello has three floors (click here for the floor plans, here for the architecture of the Bargello and the site of the museum can be seen here) and has many statues, ivory, pottery, silverware, paintings and armour. In short, far too much to see everything. Unfortunately, we have to work selectively and will only look at a small part of the overwhelming amount of art.

Bargello Giuseppe Zocchi Bargello 18th century     Large size     Arial picture
Bargello facade Florence

We can do a walk that shows the history of sculpture and start in the room where statues from the Middle Ages are displayed, including the statue by Tino di Camaino, ‘Madonna with Child‘, which we have already discussed. Because of the chronological aspect of this story about sculpture, however, we first walk to the main hall on the ground floor, where three sculptures by Michelangelo, among others, can be seen.


A Bacchus of Michelangelo and one of Jacopo Sansovino

In this large room two statues of Bacchus stand next to each other so we can compare them beautifully.172 First we look at the god of wine, a statue by Buonarroti.

Bargello room 4 ground floor statues from the 16th century
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Michelangelo has carved a sleeping cupid, a work that has now disappeared. This statue was so beautiful that one Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici proposed to make an antique statue of it and sell it. So to put it this way: the statue was buried for a while and worked on later. Lorenzo sold the ‘classic cupid’ in Rome for a lot of money to Cardinal Riario.

‘Giulio Romano’s Young Jupiter in National Gallery, London, possibly contains a citation of Michelangelo’s Sleeping Cupid.’

Source: Wikipedia

According to the biographers, Vasari and Condivi, it was of course entirely the fault of that cunning Pierfrancesco. However, the forgery was quickly discovered. Riario asked his banker, Jacopo Galli, to visit Michelangelo in Florence and ask him about this forgery. Buonarroti immediately admitted that it was a work by his hand. Galli took Michelangelo to Rome. The cardinal forgave the young sculptor and invited him to live in his villa. Riario, according to a letter from Michelangelo, had asked him what he thought of his sculpture collection. Riario asked Michelangelo to make a sculpture that would be as beautiful as the sculptures in his collection. This ended up being the Bacchus, which was made between 1496 and 1497 for the courtyard of the Palazzo Cancelleria. The client wanted an all’antica statue. What Michelangelo made, however, was certainly not a variant of the classical god of wine, but a highly original and daring Bacchus. This was also the reason the cardinal did not purchase it.

Michelangelo “Bacchus”
Youtube lecture Kathleen W. Christian
Yale University (1.31-28.10 minutes)

The statue differed too much from the classic statues. This allowed the banker Galli to buy the Bacchus. Galli placed the statue in the garden, where the Dutch artist Maerten van Heemskerck ended up drawing it, but he did draw a broken arm, which seemed more authentic to him for a ‘classical’ statue.173Michelangelo’s statue was the only modern statue in the garden

Maerten van Heemskerck ‘Garden of Casa Galli’ Kupferstichkabinett Berlin
Maerten van Heemskerck Tuin van Casa Galli Kupferstichkabinett Berlin
the satyr who eats from the grapes Bacchus and the tray of drinks
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Michelangelo Bacchus detail: sater die van de druiven eet

Picture: Dan McQuade

Bacchus is accompanied by a small satyr, a common sight in classical sculpture groups. Of course the satyr was placed by the standing leg, because it needed additional support.

The appearance of the modern Bacchus is not at all classic. In terms of interpretation, Condivi writes: ‘its form and appearance corresponds in all respects to what the classical writers intended.174 Each part had to be as the classical writers had described it: the eyes looking slightly tilted and a lustful gaze as if he would surrender completely to wine and love. In his hair are grapes and on the left is a tiger skin (the animal dedicated to Bacchus). Additionally, we see a satyr who holds a bunch of grapes and eats them. It is a classic Dionysos as Pliny and Philostratus describe it. So while Michelangelo does adhere to the literary descriptions, his Bacchus does not resemble the classical statues with this theme or this god in any way.

Vasari describes the god of wine:

‘[…] A ten palm-high Bacchus figure, with in his right hand a drinking bowl and in the left hand a tiger skin and a bunch of grapes, from which a satyr tries to eat; this figure clearly shows how Michelangelo sought a certain mixture of beautiful parts, in particular by giving it the slenderness of male youth together with the fleshiness and curves of the woman: this is so admirably achieved that he showed that he is more outstanding in sculpture than anyone else up to today.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1992 part II, p. 205 (original edition 1568).

Photo: Lee Sandstead

The not-so-heroic Bacchus not only has ‘the fleshiness and curves of a woman,’ but is above all tipsy. His posture and open mouth indicate that Bacchus has already drunk a lot and is about to take a sip again. His posture does not make a particularly stable impression. It seems as if Michelangelo returns to the centaurs of the battle relief who had also drunk too much which brought out their primal side. The alcohol makes Bacchus look ridiculous and makes him effeminate.175 The head is clearly too small in relation to the body. A god, once heroic, who has not developed himself mentally and physically.

Michelangelo’s Bacchus is by no means classical, as its divine and idealising character is severely damaged, even mocked. This wine god is unhealthy and amoral. The Bacchus was bought by Francesco de’Medici in 1572 for 240 ducats and in 1873 the statue was placed in Bargello. Now we look at the wine god of Sansovino who is close to the Bacchus of Michelangelo.

The Bacchus of Jacopo Sansovino

It will be clear that this Bacchus of Jacopo does not mock or is in conflict with the more heroic Bacchus as the classical sculptors depict their god of wine. Sansovino’s figure is slimmer and his head is no longer a pinhead. The cup is held up by the hand. This does not so much indicate drinking, but rather an attitude of joy.

Sansovino made this sculpture about fifteen years after Michelangelo’s Bacchus. The young up-and-coming sculptor Jacopo Sansovino naturally wanted to surpass Michelangelo. One way to surpass a work of art or artist was to make something that had not been done before and was extremely difficult. We have already seen this in the description of the ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ by Antonio Manetti of his friend Brunelleschi. The difficulty that Sansovino shows here is the far outstretched left arm of Bacchus and the way in which the drinking dish is partly carried by the tips of the fingers. If you compare this with Michelangelo’s Bacchus, you will notice that Buonarroti has placed the hand holding the dish much closer to the body. This now is of course no coincidence. If you have to take such an extended arm out of one block of marble, this is very risky. Even though sculptors had some techniques to do this, it was still a tricky affair. Vasari also notices this difficultà: ‘When Sansovino had completed his sculpture, it was considered the most beautiful sculpture ever made by a modern master, because Sansovino showed here an unperformed work of art, by letting the arm protrude into the air, holding a bowl of the same marble, while the space between the fingers is so subtly perforated that the hand holds it only slightly.’176

Jacopo Sansovino Bacchus   Backside    Large size
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Jacopo Sansovino Bacchus Bargello

Photo: Allan

For Bacchus’ posture, a man named Pippo del Fabbro stood model many times as a nude, because according to Vasari at the time Jacopo Sansovino:

‘[…] commenced studying a pupil of his, Pippo del Fabbro, by having him pose naked for a good part of the day, although it was winter. This Pippo eventually became a skilful master, because he made every effort to match his teacher. But whether it came from posing naked in winter, or from too much study and suffering discomforts, before the Bacchus was completed, he lost his mind from having to always adopt the same posture. And this became clear when one day it rained terribly hard and Sansovino called him. Pippo did not answer, and only then did Sansovino see him on top of the roof on top of a chimney, while he imitated the posture of his Bacchus. On other occasions he grabbed sheets and other large pieces of wet cloth, which he draped around his naked body, as if he were a model of clay or a rag doll and he even arranged the folds. Then he jumped out at the strangest places. And, somehow assuming the position of a prophet, an apostle, a soldier, or something else, he let himself be traced, thus standing still for two hours without saying anything, as if he were nothing but an immobile statue. And he pulled many more such crazy antics. But above all, he could never forget the Bacchus of Sansovino, until he died a few years later.’

Thus Vasari in his Life about Jacopo Sansovino, quoted from: Ghislain Kieft, ‘The brain of Michelangelo Art, Art Theory and the Construction of the Image in the Italian Renaissance’, Thesis Utrecht 1994 pp. 30-31

If you look closely at the statue and especially at the hand holding the drinking dish, you can see that the sculptor, Sansovino, indeed had to overcome a real difficultà.

A fire in 1762 destroyed the god of wine. A restoration was inevitable and you can still see this clearly. In the same room where we are now, there are other works by Michelangelo that we are going to see.

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