Two Masterpieces Compared: Bacchus by Titian and Caravaggio

How two artists represented the same subject with radical differences

Ann Treboux

Two depictions of Bacchus. Left: ‘Bacchus’ (c.1596) by Caravaggio. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Source Wiki Art (public domain). Right: ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1520–1523) by Titian. National Gallery, London, UK. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

When two artists chose to paint the same subject, the difference between the resulting works can be fascinating.

Here, I look at two paintings, one by Titian and one by Caravaggio, produced just over 70 years apart, both of them depicting the subject of Bacchus — the Greco-Roman god of wine and festivity.

‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1520–1523) by Titian. National Gallery, London, UK. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

Titian’s depiction, titled Bacchus and Ariadne, shows the marching band of Bacchus and his followers in full abandon. Bacchus himself can be seen in a pink robe leaping out of his chariot towards Ariadne — dressed in blue — with whom he is in love.

Titian completed the work in 1523. Born around 1490, the artist was in his early-thirties at the time. It was commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, an Italian duke and an enthusiastic patrons of arts.

Bacchus, also known as Dionysus to the Greeks, was most likely a fertility god in his origins, a vital “life force” who expressed himself in the energy inherent in nature — from the blood in the veins to the sap in the tree. By the 7th century BC, worship of Dionysus was well-established in Greek culture.

Detail of ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1520–1523) by Titian. National Gallery, London, UK. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

The cult of Bacchus was brought to Rome from the Greece, where ecstatic festivals known as Bacchanalia took place, frenzied rituals where devotees are said to have eaten raw flesh and danced to the drumming of tambourines. By the time this image was painted, the lively and passionate spirit of Bacchus had gained meaning as a complimentary opposite to Reason, as personified by Apollo.

Titian’s work follows the tradition established in art, that of showing Bacchus riding a triumphal carriage drawn by wild animals. Behind him, a partially clothed woman clashes a pair of symbols as the Bacchanalia march proceeds.

At her feet is a young satyr, with the face of a boy and the legs of a goat, who drags a calf’s head next to him — an animal probably sacrificed during the festival. The man behind — a sileni or companion of Bacchus — is wrapped in a snake, symbolic of death and rebirth since snakes shed their skin.

The feisty merriment continues onwards: a chanting follower holds a calf’s leg aloft and a staff with vines growing round it, the vine leaf representing wine. The staff is probably a thyrsus, a symbolic wand used to bestow favour or else as a weapon to destroy those who opposed Bacchus’ cult and the freedoms he celebrated.

‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1520–1523) by Titian. National Gallery, London, UK. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

Titian’s great painting has a clear narrative element too: Bacchus has fallen in love with Ariadne at first sight and asked her to marry him. As he jumps towards her, he offers the sky as a wedding gift, in which one day she would become a constellation — as seen in the scattering of stars in the top-left of the painting.

The two cheetahs pulling the chariot may also be specific references: Alfonso d’Este is known to have had a menagerie at his palace in which he kept a cheetah or a cheetah-like member of the cat family.

‘Bacchus’ (c.1596) by Caravaggio. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

Caravaggio’s painting of Bacchus contains all the revelry associated with the mythological libertine — only this time it is bubbling beneath the surface rather than on show. The painting expresses a deeply restrained sense of a “storm-beneath-the-calm”, making it a potent work of art for all its quietude.

Caravaggio, who was born in 1571, painted this work at the age of around 24. It was commissioned by Cardinal Del Monte, an Italian diplomat who became one of Caravaggio’s early patrons.

The painting shows Bacchus as a callow youth. The boy-god is swathed in autumnal vine leaves that drape over a thicket of black hair that itself might be a bunch of black grapes. His cheeks are plump and red. He is half-dressed, clutching the black ribbon of his robe in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. He is reclined before a table or stone slab bearing a carafe of wine and a basket of overripe fruit with pomegranate, pear, apple, peach, quince, fig, plum and grape.

Detail of ‘Bacchus’ (c.1596) by Caravaggio. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

In Caravaggio’s work, the setting is opulent yet also far more sedate than the Titian painting. There is little sense of narrative impulse in this painting, only perhaps in the intimacy of the drink being offered.

For me, the force of Caravaggio’s painting lies in two details: the first is the particular shape of the wine glass offered by the boy, a glass so extraordinarily shallow that it seems to emanate decadence itself. The wine inside shimmers with fresh ripples — as if the boy is shaking a little with excitement as he passes it.

All of the energy of the painting is concentrated in this wine glass. There is no Bacchanalian revelry, no tambourine-thumping sileni. The boy seems not the least bit drunk, only placid and self-assured as he welcomes us into his private soirée.

As if to underline the worldly setting, the second detail that always catches my attention is the grubby pillow on the bottom-left of the painting, exposed beneath the sheets, the one with the blue stripe, reminding us that the opulence here is makeshift and temporary.

Detail of ‘Bacchus’ (c.1596) by Caravaggio. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

Along with this sense of the makeshift, there is also something transitory in the feel of the entire piece. The fruit in the basket is beginning to rot and the vine leaves on the boy’s head are turning brown. These elements hint at a vanitasundertone, a symbolic theme in art that attempts to show the transience of life and the futility of pleasure. With this ephemerality and suggestion of impending demise, Caravaggio gives the painting an additional tragic element.

The sensuality of scene is a prominent aspect, and many critics have written about the homoerotic echoes of the work. The art historian Donald Posner, for instance, felt that the latent homoeroticism was actually alluding to Cardinal Del Monte’s sexuality and his relationships with the young boys who frequented his inner circle.

The painting makes use of a simple setting, unlike the rich detail of the Titian work. The sense of place in the Caravaggio work is given simply by a shadow that falls across the backdrop. By no means untouched by trouble in his personal life, Caravaggio would go on to use light and dark in more figurative ways in later paintings, yet without losing the psychological ambiguity he so successfully located in this early Bacchus depiction.

Ann Treboux

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