When art gets drunk too. The Bacchanalia by Peter Paul Rubens – Uffizi Gallery, Florence

This artwork has been realized in the time frame 1635-1640 and it has travelled a lot over the centuries. Originally, it has been displayed in the Imperial Gallery in Wien until December 16th 1793, when the painting was moved to Florence. Here, it has been exhibited in the Prince’s rooms in Pitti Palace until the II World War; in 1940 the artwork was relocated in the harmonious Tuscan countryside, in the Medicean Villa of Poggio a Caiano, a village in the surroundings of Prato, not far from Florence.

The Bacchanalia made then a stop again in Pitti Palace in 1944, being hosted in the Museo degli Argenti; its pilgrimage ends in 1951, when the artwork finally found his home in the Uffizi gallery, more precisely in the Flemish room, where it is displayed still today. More recently, it was carried in Verona for the exhibition “Art and Wine”, held at Gran Guardia Palace, facing the more famous Arena di Verona, in 2015.

Well, I’m inviting you to a virtual party, as we are used to do during this quarantine time. But in this occasion, mum should not be worried about the time you come back home.

This is not an ordinary party: countryside is the setting and people of various ages will join, undesirable people indeed! However, let me assure you that you will eat and, first of all, you will have a lot of wine.

Peter Paul Rubens, Bacchanalia, around 1635-40, oil on canva, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

How much ado in such a small painting: 152 x 118cm!

How many intentionally flaunted vulgarities the Flemish artist shows to demonstrate a secure mastery of the scenic space! This is Rubens’ way to pay tribute to the legend of wine.

The bodies are shamelessly depicted and the scene is licentious as well. Our gaze is enraptured by the ugliness of these naked, baggy, shiny bodies, full of cellulitis! The immoderation has penetrated in those bodies and made their flesh gangrenous. Everything here gives a sense of amoral jouissance. The wild mythomania and the lucid madness, characteristic of the most sensual age that is Baroque, are expressed in the fraternal gesture of the fat bacchante who leans over her God and encircles his shoulders. One of the most fraternal gestures among the animal rituals.

Peter Paul Rubens, Bacchanalia, around 1635-40, oil on canva, Uffizi Gallery, Florence – detail of the work.

Vitality and decadence are showed one by one: the characters are at mercy of the physical devastation caused by drinking beyond measure during a wild and joyful life. This sense of intoxication at the highest level sets Bacchus free and delighted; that’s why we have a god and a worship dedicated to this millennia-old beverage.

Rubens: the most-Italian artist coming from the northern Europe ever existed

We needed the tumultuous brush of Rubens reminding us the mythological joyousness, that is peculiar of the Dionysian world. The dynamism and the widening of the characters in the scene make him the perfect interpreter of a raunchy show against the light. The glossy and sweaty skins are highlighted by a sculptural effect that Rubens achieved with his brush.

When the Flemish artist painted this drunkenness, he had already lived in Italy and thus he had already properly observed the immortal masters of picture. He took inspiration from the Laocoon to give life to the Descent from the cross, created between 1612 and 1614 for the Antwerp Cathedral.

Peter Paul Rubens, The descent from the cross, around 1612-14, oil on oak, Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp

Therefore, we can consider Rubens as the most-Italian artist coming from the northern Europe ever existed; he is the perfect synthesis of the classicism and the baroque vibrancy. His style combines both the suggestions from the Antiquity and the taste of the patronage, as occurs in the Bacchanalia and in other works committed by his buyers.

In the Bacchanalia the Carracci classicism and the backlight still-life by Caravaggio coexist and are enhanced by a special attention to the details, peculiar of the Flemish meticulousness. These traits are embedded in Rubens’ background and in his stylistic research.

Let’s tackle the Bacchanalia iconography! The center of the stage is occupied by the paunchy and filthy Bacchus, who puts his feet on a pig, a clear allegorical figure. Starting from Bacchus, our eyes instigated to a circular motion. Firstly, we meet a Maenad who is pouring wine in the huge golden bowl held by the god, whom she’s devoted to and who does not care about his follower’s nudity.

Peter Paul Rubens, Bacchanalia, around 1635-40, oil on canva, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

These two characters becomes a trio along with the shameless putto who collects directly in his mouth the wine spitted from the jug, due to the trembling hand of the Maenad. In the background, Silenus is drunk; in spite of his ancestral virility, his body is here flaccid, a horny ghoul. The composition ends with a little child peeing. He is naked too, but he has no childish delicacy, being turned into a fierce little devil.

As in every artwork by Rubens, here the complex and lush scenes are predominant; the colours are highly detailed as the landscapes and every single element.

Rubens’ style is commonly considered as a performed virtuosity. Let’s leave the benefit of the doubt to evil-minded people! This artwork, even if it is a minor painting if compared with the great works that made him famous in the European Royal Courts, has its own rare and loose elegance, enriched by the preciosity of the detail. It looks like the great oenological creations characterized by vibrancy of taste, high alcohol, full body, strong oak aromas, long ageing in barrel, deep colour. The Bacchanalia are like a wine that betrays at the first sip, inebriation that goes straight to the brain.

Go back home now: it’s getting late.

I will not reveal anything of what you have seen tonight. Everything will be confidential, as for those great red wines that survives in the time, because they hide unspeakable time-lost secrets.

Annibale CarracciTriumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, around 1600, fresco. Roma, Palazzo Farnese, Ceiling of the gallery.
CaravaggioThe sick Bacchus, 1593-1594, oil on canva, cm 67 x 53. Roma, Galleria Borghese

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