Theses Doctoral

"Viva Bacco e viva Amore": Bacchic Imagery in the Renaissance

McStay, Heather O'Leary

The fifteenth century in Italy is often studied for its revival of antiquity, but looking at this revival through the particular lens of Bacchus and his band of ecstatic followers reveals a unique view of the complex texture of the intellectual, cultural, and artistic fabric of the Renaissance. Although Bacchus, as a god of wine and revelry, was not an obvious role model for Renaissance patrons, he appeared nonetheless in drawings, paintings, engravings, plaquettes, and sculpture, and in marriage parades, banquet entertainments, plays, and songs. This dissertation examines how and why such a god and his wild cohort could acquire such a broad appeal and what they signified to their contemporary audiences. Stepping off from Aby Warburg's insight that emotionality is a third vector of historical measurement in addition to form and content, we first explore what it was in ancient Bacchic art that appealed to Renaissance artists striving to reinvigorate their work, finding that they were drawn to its expressive realism, shown with vigorous movement and figural variety, as well as its portrayal of lassitude and voluptuous pleasure. We look also at shifts in ideas about invention, imagination, composition, and imitation, and their impact on how artists viewed this antique inheritance and found inspiration in the Bacchic figures. Philosophical concepts, especially Neoplatonic ideas of inspiration and Aristotelian notions of Necessity, are considered for their impact on the meanings gleaned from Bacchic imagery.
Each member of the Bacchic retinue is then explored to determine how his or her gestural vocabulary was employed, and what meanings he or she was made to bear in new settings. The frenzied maenad, with her hints of madness and untamed eroticism, was transformed into grieving Mary Magdalenes, heroic Judiths, and dancing Salomes, or was prettified into all'antica serving girls, nymphs, and personifications. The discovery of a sleeping Ariadne, unveiled by a satyr, contributed to one of the more popular motifs of the Renaissance, which even in new contexts retained associations with the epiphany and resurrection experienced by Ariadne when she was rescued by Bacchus. Revived epithalamic traditions employed the Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne as a metaphor for both the taming forces of marriage and the bittersweet aura of youth and love. The frolicking, ithyphallic satyr embodied visions not only of a lost Arcadia, but also of the balancing forces of nature that require sexuality to sustain life. Tales of Silenus' wisdom inflected Renaissance depictions of the dissipated old satyr with contemporary notions of the morosoph, or wise fool. And as a symbol of the cosmos, Pan became the leader of a revived pastoral mode, a noble prince for a restored Golden Age.
As a fecund, frenzied god, Bacchus came to embody the newly awakened Neoplatonic notion of divine furor: the inspiration that fueled all transcendent thought and creative imagination. At a moment when visual artists were striving to attain the status of their poetic counterparts, Bacchus epitomized the nature of artistic frenzy as a complement to the poet's Apollonian furor. The Bacchanalian paintings commissioned for Alfonso d'Este's Camerino d'Alabastro in Ferrara were a final flourish to this revival of Bacchus (before the archaeological and mythographical rigor of the mid-sixteenth century reduced him to a stereotype). The god's associations with love and fertility enhanced the duke's self-presentation as a magnanimous, liberal, and prolific ruler. The presentation of Epicurean delights signified a true understanding of an elevated voluptas, which saw the greatest good attained through the metaphor of sensual pleasures. Titian's paintings fully materialized the energy and pathos that first attracted the early Renaissance artists to Bacchic imagery.



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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Rosand, David
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 24, 2014