Commissioning of the Bacchus

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Michelangelo's Bacchus

Scholarly consensus today is that Michelangelo’s Bacchus (1496-1497) was commissioned by Cardinal Raffaele Riario, the Cardinal of San Giorgio (1460-1521). The consensus over 40 years ago was that the banker Jacopo Galli commissioned the Bacchus. This raises the question of why the Bacchus’s patronage was unknown for so long?

Michelangelo first came to Cardinal Riario’s attention in early 1496 through the Sleeping Cupid sculpture Michelangelo had aged to imitate an antiquity. The Cardinal purchased the sculpture for the price of an antique and realized later he had been tricked. 

Michelangelo’s first letter to Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de’ Medici (1463-1503) dated Thursday, July 2nd provides first-hand accounts regarding the commission. He wrote, “last Saturday [June 20, 1496], we arrived at Salvamento."[1] With introductory letters from Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, Michelangelo met Cardinal Riario on June 20th. This establishes that on the same day Cardinal Riario showed Michelangelo his collection of statues.

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Cardinal Raffaele Riario

In the second half of his first letter, Michelangelo writes, “on Sunday, the cardinal went to his new house and asked for me."[2] The cardinal’s “new house” refers to the Palazzo di Riario, which is now known as the Palace della Cancelleria. Michelangelo tells us that “something beautiful” was commissioned on Sunday, June 21. It is unknown and unclear what this beautiful thing commissioned was, though Michelangelo recalls that a “block of marble big enough for a life sized figure" [3] was bought. Patron and artist would most likely chose a location for the statue to be placed for the Bacchus at this time. The Bacchus was designed to be placed in the cortile (courtyard) of the Cancelleria.[4] This is supported by the fact that the Bacchus had multiple viewpoints and was most likely intended to be placed in the middle of the garden.[5]

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Exterior of the Palazzo della Cancelleria

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Interior of the Palazzo della Cancelleria

On Monday, July 6, 1496 Michelangelo started working on the marble. He couldn’t carve the Bacchus in the Cancelleria because construction started in 1489 [6] and didn’t finish until December 1500.[7] In addition, Cardinal Riario’s bank accounts prove that much of the construction in the Cancelleria occurred in the summer of 1497.[8]  The Cardinal didn’t live in the Cancelleria until late December 1496 himself.[9] Not only had Michelangelo already started work on the Bacchus in the summer of 1496 but he was finished with the sculpture in early 1497.  Michelangelo could not sculpt on a construction site and needed to find a substitute location.

Although Condivi [10] and Vasari [11] both record that Michelangelo stayed with Cardinal Riario, it is believed instead that he stayed with banker Jacopo Galli. Jacopo Galli lived in the Rione Parione near the Church of S. Lorenzo in Damaso, which is across the street from the Cancelleria.[12] The proximity of Galli’s house would allow Cardinal Riario to visit the Bacchus often, and would explain its later attribution to Galli. Furthermore, Cardinal Riario sent wine to Michelangelo on Saturday, September 19, 1946 to Jacopo Galli’s house.[13] 

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Martin van Heemskerk, The Garden of Jacopo Galli, 1532-1535

Michelangelo’s second letter written to his father Lodovico Buonarroti (1444-1534) on July 1, 1497 indicates that the Bacchus was finished during the first half of 1497. He explains his frustrations with the Cardinal to his father, “I still haven’t been able to settle my affairs with the cardinal…" [14] Cardinal Riario paid for the Bacchus but never moved the sculpture to its intended location in the Cancelleria. There are several theories as to why the cardinal may have rejected the sculpture. The cardinal certainly approved of the sculpture or he wouldn’t have paid for it.[15] Cardinal Riario did not reject the Bacchus due to its pagan subject because the wine he sent to Michelangelo was in reference to the drunken god. Bacchus wouldn’t have been discarded because of its male nudity. The now lost Hercules was nude and would have been precedence to the Bacchus and make the latter less controversial.[16] The most probable reason why the Bacchus was rejected may be due to the unfortunate coincidence of Duke Gandia’s (Pope Alexander VI’s son) death.[17] The pope in grief proposed reforms in the College of Cardinals to prevent cardinals from going to pagan theatre.[18] Cardinal Riario’s involvement in theatre and commissioning of the Bacchus would be inappropriate for the political atmosphere and thus led to the Bacchus’s abandonment.

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Raffaele Maffei of Volterra

Instead, Jacopo Galli bought the statue.[19] Out of convenience, Michelangelo may have claimed Galli as Bacchus's patron. Therefore, the Bacchus stayed in the Garden of Jacopo Galli where it was placed amongst real antiquities in Galli’s collection. Here, it sparked discussion and comparisons with other artworks: The Farnese Bacchus, the Apollo Belvedere, as well as Bacchic representations on Roman sarcophagi.

There are several descriptions of the Bacchus in Galli’s garden. The first textual description of Bacchus appears in Raffaele Maffei of Volterra's writing (in his Commenariorum Urbanirum) in 1506.[20] Martin van Heemskerk’s drawing of The Garden of Jacopo Galli done in 1532-1535 is one of the most recognized examples. Even Giorgio Vasari in his 1550 edition of the Lives records the statue’s broken hand.

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Giorgio Vasari

After 1550, Bacchus’s right hand and cup are no longer presented as broken.[21] Although they are restorations, they are of the same marble as the statue itself.[22] Perhaps Michelangelo restored the statue himself. However, both Condivi in his 1553 Vita and Vasari in his 1568 edition of the Lives do not mention the restoration. The inconsistencies prove there are gaps to Condivi and Vasari’s writings. Both historians were born after the Bacchus was completed - Vasari in 1511 and Condivi in 1525 – so their only source of information was from Michelangelo. Jacopo Galli died in 1505 and Cardinal Riario died in 1521 so Michelangelo became the only person who knows about the Bacchus commission.[23] And no one could refute him.

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Detail, Face of Bacchus

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Detail, Bacchus's satyr

Michelangelo was probably upset that the Bacchus was not displayed where it was intended and therefore felt his first commission in Rome unsuccessful. Perhaps so upset that he rewrote the Bacchus narrative to leave Cardinal Riario out of its patronage.

The Bacchus was moved several times after being displayed in Galli’s garden: first to the Medici Family, then to Florence in the Uffizi Gallery and finally to the Bargello Museum.[24] Yet, throughout this time, no one questioned Jacopo Galli as the statue’s patron.

The first art historian to suggest that the Bacchus was commissioned by Cardinal Riario was Johannes Wilde in 1932 in his Eine Studie Michelangelos nach der Antike.[25] Charles de Tolnay supported this speculation.[26] The suspicions were finally confirmed in 1981 by Michael Hirst who published Cardinal Riario’s bank accounts.[27] The bank accounts list three payments of 50 ducats each for the Bacchus’s commission: the first in August 23, 1496, another in April 8, 1497, and the last one on July 3, 1497.[28] These bank accounts confirm Cardinal Riario's commissioning of the Bacchus and gives insight on how Michelangelo had considerable influence in his biographies and in the narratives of his works. 



[1] Michelangelo Buonarroti, Poems and Letters: Selections, with the 1550 Vasari Life. Translated by Anthony Mortimer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). 75.

[2] “Ibid.”

[3] “Ibid.”

[4] Erin Sutherland Minter, ”Discarded deity: The rejection of Michelangelo’s Bacchus and the artist’s response,” Renaissance Studies 28, no. 3 (2013): 445.

[5] Charles de Tolnay, Michelangelo: Sculptor, Painter, Architect (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1975), 9.

[6]  Erin Sutherland Minter, ”Discarded deity: The rejection of Michelangelo’s Bacchus and the artist’s response,” Renaissance Studies 28, no. 3 (2013): 445.

[7] Michael Hirst, “Michelangelo in Rome: An Altar-Piece and the ‘Bacchus’,” The Burlington Magazine 123, no. 943 (1981): 590.

[8] “Ibid.”

[9] Erin Sutherland Minter, ”Discarded deity: The rejection of Michelangelo’s Bacchus and the artist’s response,” Renaissance Studies 28, no. 3 (2013): 451.

[10] Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo (University Park: The Pennsylvania State Press, 2013), 23.

[11] Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc, 2008), 243.

[12] Charles de Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1947), 142.

[13] Erin Sutherland Minter, ”Discarded deity: The rejection of Michelangelo’s Bacchus and the artist’s response,” Renaissance Studies 28, no. 3 (2013): 450.

[14] Michelangelo Buonarroti, Poems and Letters: Selections, with the 1550 Vasari Life. Translated by Anthony Mortimer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). 76.

[15] Erin Sutherland Minter, ”Discarded deity: The rejection of Michelangelo’s Bacchus and the artist’s response,” Renaissance Studies 28, no. 3 (2013): 446.

[16] Charles de Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1947), 144.

[17] Erin Sutherland Minter, ”Discarded deity: The rejection of Michelangelo’s Bacchus and the artist’s response,” Renaissance Studies 28, no. 3 (2013): 453.

[18] “Ibid.,” 454.

[19] Charles de Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1947), 142.

[20] Erin Sutherland Minter, ”Discarded deity: The rejection of Michelangelo’s Bacchus and the artist’s response,” Renaissance Studies 28, no. 3 (2013): 443.

[21] Luba Freedman, “Michelangelo’s Reflections on Bacchus,” Artibus et Historiae 24, no. 47 (2003): 123.

[22] Charles de Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1947), 142.

[23] “Ibid.,”27.

[24] “Ibid.,” 143.

[25] Michael Hirst, “Michelangelo in Rome: An Altar-Piece and the ‘Bacchus’,” The Burlington Magazine 123, no. 943 (1981): 590.

[26] Charles de Tolnay, The Youth of Michelangelo (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1947), 27.

[27] Michael Hirst, “Michelangelo in Rome: An Altar-Piece and the ‘Bacchus’,” The Burlington Magazine 123, no. 943 (1981): 593.

[28] Michael Hirst, Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame, 1475-1534 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 416), 30.