Picture this: an impeccably set table. Fresh meat, cheese and vegetables cooked to perfection. All around large carafes filled with wine and glasses brimming with the ruby red liquid. Sound like a dinner party you’ve been to recently? If you’re lucky, this is a familiar scene, but have you ever stopped to think how it became so?
We have the Renaissance to thank for making the jump from cookie-cutter religious portrayals to jovial banquets with lots of wine. 500 years ago, painting of almost entirely religious imagery shifted to the varied art of the modern age. Interestingly though, in the Italian Renaissance we still don’t see a ton of set tables and well imbibed merriment. Instead, we can find the shift in the depiction of wine through the ancient Roman God, Bacchus.
Who was Bacchus?
Knowing a bit about Bacchus, the God of Wine, suddenly many art and symbols you see around Tuscany make a lot more sense. Often displayed as a youthful adolescent, he is frequently painted enjoying (too much) of the sweet stuff. He’s usually depicted with grape vines in his hair and a rather drunken grin as he wreaks mischief on the lives of men. Bacchus is frequently rendered in sculpture – the great Michelangelo has interpreted him – but it is perhaps easier to envision his debauchery through the medium of painting, where the artist can set the entire scene and really let his myth come to life.
The Renaissance was marked by the rebirth of the classics: literature, language, architecture and art. Bacchus, being a Roman God, was also rediscovered and reborn in the Renaissance. During his heyday in antiquity he was known as the God of agriculture and the grapevine. However as the 16th century Italian’s got a hold of his story and image, he went from being a powerful God to a drunken reveler.
Three works of art about Bacchus and wine
Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian (1520-23)
If ever there was a painting to depict the folly that happens when way too much wine is imbibed, this is it. The entire scene is chaos, from the almost nude Bacchus (leaping from his chariot) to his entourage accompanying him as he lays eyes on Ariadne. There is even a small Satyr dragging the head of a cow and many people behaving wildly in the background. This too is a fascinating depiction that stays close to the myth of Bacchus as a Roman God, before the Renaissance artists re-envisioned him.
Bacchus, Guido Reni (1623)
This Bacchus is perhaps the most scandalous of the three examples we’ve chosen. Depicted as a rotund baby, his eyes roll back into his head as he guzzles wine. He also pees freely as the cask behind him leaks wine in a similar fashion. An image like this would have been unthinkable stylistically and iconographically just a century earlier.
Bacchus, Caravaggio (1596-97)
The last example is finds its home right here in Tuscany, at the Uffizi Gallery. This Bacchus is so vastly different from the other two we’ve looked at and it’s influence is truly remarkable. Bacchus is depicted as an effeminate young man, less outwardly drunk than suggestively relaxed. He holds the glass lightly, extending it to the viewer as if by invitation. His face is flushed, perhaps the only obvious indication of his over-indulgence. Here the wine has become the focus of the image, with your gaze traveling to the extra large glass and the bottle still full on the table. Finally, in the late 15th century, we see wine itself being showcased as art, which is truly remarkable. Still life painting of this sort eventually led us to the manner in which we see wine portrayed today.
If you’re interested in wine and art, finding and exploring the depictions of wine in Renaissance paintings can be an interesting adventure. From standard Last Supper depictions to the Bacchus of Caravaggio, wine has remained a constant subject. How it is depicted within shifting social and cultural views makes for interesting study. While wine (and its effects) has long been represented in art, one interesting consideration is how wine making is an art in and of itself.