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Transcript, ArtCurious Episode #47: Shock Art: Caravaggio's Young Sick Bacchus

There are certain things in the history of art that you just except, even if you don’t know all that much about art. You expect to think “Andy Warhol” when you see someone riffing on a quadrant of screen-printed portraits. You expect to see Jesus looking strangely Caucasian, with a flowing beard and long brown hair (and shout out to our pal Albrecht Durer on that one-- you know what I mean if you listened to the last season of this show). And you just expect gods and goddesses to be presented similarly. Venus is all lithe and beautiful, born on that scallop shell rising out of the sea. Diana, or Artemis, is a hunter-goddess, so she’s gonna be coming at you with a bow and arrow. And Bacchus, the god of wine? He’s a partying guy, holding a wine glass and ready to have a good time. But what if an image of Bacchus isn’t quite what you are expecting? What happens if an artist changes things up-- not only modeling a god upon himself, but bringing that god down to an embarrassingly human level?

Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, by popular demand, we are starting a new season of episodes that continue the theme of our last season. In season five, we will be dissecting single works of art that shook their contemporary worlds, covering another painting that causes waves, even today. In this episode, we’re looking at that scalawag, Caravaggio, and his strange painting Young Sick Bacchus.  This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in art history. I'm Jennifer Dasal.

To be fair, covering the life and exploits of Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, (not to be confused with Michelangelo Buonarroti, and known today primarily by the single moniker of Caravaggio) has long been a goal of mine on the ArtCurious Podcast. And indeed, his story--or aspects of it--were among the first that I considered when I was brainstorming topics for this show. As an artist, and as a person, this guy was just epic. He pioneered a whole new way of showing drama and emotion in art during the Italian Baroque period, and, at the same time, lived this insane life filled with violence and intrigue. Born in 1571, he was apparently scrappy at an early age, though much of that scrappiness was out of necessity. Though not much is known about his childhood, we do know that when he was only six years old, the bubonic plague hit his hometown and killed nearly everyone in his family, including his father, with whom he was close. As writer Andrew Graham-Dixon noted in his 2011 biography, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, this was the formative moment of his life-- the traumatic event that shaped his future. The loss of his father caused him to act out and sabotage his opportunities throughout his life, regardless of how good they could be for him. As Graham-Dixon writes, "It's almost like he cannot avoid transgressing. As soon as he's welcomed by authority, welcomed by the pope, welcomed by the Knights of Malta, he has to do something to screw it up. It's almost like a fatal flaw." Orphaned and penniless, Caravaggio took up with a group of painters and lived on the streets, doing what he could to make a living for himself. My heart breaks thinking about this: a small child, all alone, ingratiating himself to a group of strangers simply to survive.

And one of the best ways for him to survive was to paint. When he was 11 years old, Caravaggio moved to Milan and began an apprenticeship with a painter called Simone Peterzano, and a few years later, he moved again, striking out on his own to Rome, where he would soon call home. And there, he quickly became popular-- known as a talented and speedy artist who could complete a fantastic work in under two weeks, given the right materials and if the canvas was the right size. But that didn’t mean he was easy to work with. He was a bad boy who was involved in altercation and after altercation before eventually murdering a man-- for real, he did actually murder someone, after which he was sentenced to death. But of course Caravaggio’s story didn’t end there-- he fled town to escape said death sentence, kept painting and painting some of the best works of the Roman baroque period, and once again got involved in several violent struggles before succumbing, in 1610, of what some simply call a fever, while others have stipulated that he himself was murdered. Like I said, this guy was epic. But these are only the roughest outlines of a grandiose and savage life. What’s strange is that Caravaggio, over time, almost faded into obscurity, because his everyday life was not well documented. He did not leave behind any journals or notes, and he was only rediscovered as an incredible artists after art historians really began to dig into the authorship of some of the key works of the Baroque period. And I am so glad that they did, because his works have solidified his place in the art historical canon as one of the greats. Nevertheless, he is still a bit of a cipher, and early art historians, in particular, were left grappling for any clue in his artwork that would illuminate his biography. One minor clue to a period in his life might very well come from our painting today, his Young Sick Bacchus from 1593.

Before we tackle the surprises that this painting has in store, it’s best that we back up and do a little bit of Greco-Roman mythology here. Bacchus is the god of wine and revelry, the Romanized name for the god originally known as Dionysus in Greek mythos. The story goes that Bacchus’s daddy is really the big daddy of Roman myth himself-- Jupiter, who did the thing that Jupiter typically does, which is that he hoisted himself down from Mount Olympus and, disguised,  got hot and heavy with a human-- in this case, Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, the king of Thebes. Soon enough, Semele finds she’s expecting a little bundle of joy. This affair did not go over well with Juno, Jupiter’s wife, and, through some complicated, slippery machinations, Juno forced Jupiter to reveal himself in his God form to Semele. Now, here’s the thing: humans could not see the form of the gods without dying-- this is why Jupiter, or Zeus, or indeed others in the Greco-Roman pantheon--couldn’t come to interact with people unless they took the form of something or someone else. So, Semele sees Jupiter and immediately kicks the bucket-- but Jupiter, thinking fast, manages to save her unborn child by sewing him into his thigh and making off with him to the far-flung Mount Pramnos on the Greek island of Ikaria. And there, a few months later, the baby-- Bacchus, or Dionysus-- was born. From Jupiter’s thigh. I know. It’s weird. But hey, I didn’t write it, so let’s just go along with it.

Like the gods of ancient art and the saints and many other figures throughout art history, Bacchus has particular attributes-- those things that you visually associate with a particular figure, the things that make it easy to identify whom you are seeing in a painting or a sculpture. It’s a visual shorthand, once you learn them-- St. Peter is usually holding keys, for example, and John the Baptist wears this particular hairy cloak and sometimes hangs out with a little lamb, symbolizing the Lamb of God. Here are Bacchus’s attributes: he’s almost always pictured with grapes, vines, and a kylix (or type of greek drinking cup) meant to be filled with wine. Because Bacchus is all about having a good time. For millennia, he has embodied the the optimistic drunk, welcoming mischief among his followers as much as himself. Those who worshiped him-- the Maenads and the satyrs (who were female and male, respectively), celebrated by drinking to excess, singing, dancing, cavorting, losing one’s inhibitions, and ultimately getting into all kinds of sexual adventures-- or just plain trouble. Bacchus became the icon of both fun and folly: have fun, carpe diem, but don’t go nuts-- don’t go crazy. Just… be cool, okay?

So, how did Caravaggio subvert this typical rendition of the great god of Wine? And why? That’s coming up next, right after this break.

Welcome back to ArtCurious.

The image of Bacchus as a typically merry drunk began in antiquity and was re-instituted with a vengeance during the Renaissance, when all things Greco-Roman became hot again. Think of Michelangelo’s David, all perfect and amazing, an improvement, many said, upon the designs of the ancient past.  The obsession with antiquity didn’t let up, and a couple hundred years later, when Baroque art came into its height, it was still a big deal, and Bacchus, the happy mischief-maker himself, was still a popular subject, so it makes sense that Caravaggio would take a crack at it. And that he did, a couple of times. His most famous, perhaps, is his 1595 painting of Bacchus located today at the Uffizi in Florence. This one isn’t too far off from your normal depictions: Bacchus is young, with a rosy baby face, draped in white robes that open to a hairless chest and pretty swole arms, looking at us, the viewers, with knowing-- and kinda sexy hooded eyes.  This is our merry reveler, and you know he’s got something fun on his mind. He’s holding a goblet of wine in his left hand and extends it out towards us. He’s inviting us in, to join in the good times.

That’s the way we expect to see Bacchus. But just two years earlier, in 1593, he painted a strange, slightly disturbing work-- Young Sick Bacchus, today in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. Here, his portrayal of Bacchus is… interesting. At the bare minimum, Bacchus seems very hung over, which was extremely out of character for portrayals of the god. Earlier paintings-- even earlier paintings that Caravaggio himself made of Bacchus show the god in his typical form, all inviting, lavish, and healthy.  But here, he doesn’t look so hot. His body is turned at a three-quarter angle, as typical for many portraits, but his head is tilted very far back with a pained grimace on his face. The traditional grape vine crowning his head is haphazardly intertwined with his curly hair, all messy, and even worse, Bacchus has yellowing skin and eyes, and grotesquely pale lips. In fact, his skin is so discolored that it matches the yellow-green grapes held close to his face, and it oddly highlights the bright golden peaches set before him in a callout to a typical still-life painting.  Even worse, the dark background only serves to highlight the paleness in Bacchus’s face. You guys, it’s bad. This is more than just evidence of partying since the beginning of creation. This is a serious illness.

But what, exactly, IS this illness that Caravaggio is depicting? This question has plagued art historians for decades, but we may have at least some sort of clue. Most historians concur that after moving to Rome in 1592, Caravaggio fell ill and spent six months in the hospital of Santa Maria della Consolazione, an infirmary established in 1506. And it was during his stay at the hospital that he began working on Young Sick Bacchus. So due to this timing, art historians have long assumed this portrait to be a self portrait of Caravaggio during his illness- and what was it that Caravaggio probably suffered from? Acute jaundice.  

Okay, so we know what Caravaggio may have suffered- but what caused his jaundice?

Around the late 16th century, jaundice like this-  of so-called “unknown origin”- was most likely caused by acute infective hepatitis, perhaps caused by an animal-transmitted disease, such as brucellosis or Q fever, both bacterial diseases commonly found in sheep, cattle, and even dogs. So, who knows-- maybe he was bitten by a feral dog, or perhaps he came in contact with some infected animal bodily fluid. And some have even suggested that perhaps Caravaggio was inflicted with Malaria. We can’t really know for sure. Ultimately, accurately diagnosing Caravaggio five hundred years later is difficult, but often, art historians can speculate- and if you listened to our “Diagnosis: Art History” episode in season 1 (that’s episode 18 if you want to listen up), then you’ll  know that this has never stopped people from engaging in a little guessing.

Let’s do with this assumed diagnosis of jaundice. So, if Caravaggio was genuinely ill with jaundice, why would he depict himself as the young god of wine, transformed in such a grotesque manner? What does a typically merry reveler have to do with Caravaggio’s own symptoms? Well, as an artist, he was an astute witness of the world around him, and surely he noticed many patients at the hospital who were suffering from the side-effects of a life of excess. And what’s something that many chronic alcoholics suffering from liver failure experience? Jaundice, due to cirrhosis. And who knows? Caravaggio himself was a known imbiber, so perhaps his own liver ailments led to this yellowing of his skin and eyes. In this case, Bacchus may represent a mirror image of Caravaggio himself, coming to grips with his feelings surrounding his illness and its causes. Bacchus was the lively center of attention at any bacchanale. He was known for indulgence, and mischief followed him wherever he went. Perhaps Caravaggio saw himself in this god, partying too hard and drinking too much. When he fell ill, he probably felt similarly to how Bacchus would have felt in actuality if he had been human, rather than a god. Bacchus should have been worn, nauseous, and unable to maintain his good health. Here, in Caravaggio’s image, he is defeated as his head tilts back, too exhausted to hold it upright. Caravaggio’s work itself isn’t terribly shocking, the way Goya’s Saturn is, or Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith is-- those two works are ones we discussed last season on ArtCurious. But here, he’s personally playing with art history, presenting himself as a god, brought down to earth and becoming mortal. Taking down the gods and subverting art history in the process? Now that is truly shocking.

Thank you for listening to the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Kelsey Breen. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our logo is by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com. Additional editing help by Hannah Roberts. The ArtCurious Podcast is sponsored primarily by Anchorlight. Anchorlight is a creative space, founded with the intent of fostering artists, designers, and craftspeople at varying stages of their development. Home to artist studios, residency opportunities, and exhibition space Anchorlight encourages mentorship and the cross-pollination of skills among creatives in the Triangle.  please visit anchorlightraleigh.com.

The ArtCurious Podcast is also fiscally sponsored by VAE Raleigh, a 501c3 nonprofit creativity incubator. For more details about our show, including the image mentioned in this episode today, please visit our website: artcuriouspodcast.com. We’re also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @artcuriouspod.

Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in the shocking works of  art history.

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