Inspiration: Bacchus and the Cultural History of a Creation Myth

By John F. Moffitt | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
THE NEOPLATONIC BACCHUS OF
THE RENAISSANCE

Bacchus Reborn in the Renaissance, "all'antica"

Written evidence documents the emergence at the end of the Quattrocento of a very different point of view regarding figurative Dionysiac "transports." At once aristocratic and philosophical, the Renaissance position on Inspiration was one which was very concretely anchored in the svelte but tipsy figure of a newly "moralized" Bacchus, supposedly recreated all'antica. In the strictly visual sense, the decidedly wobbly balance of Michelangelo's figure represents a nearly clinical (eikastic or naturalistic) condition of precarious, but essentially "merry," inebriation (fig. 1). Charles de Tolnay interprets positively some symbolic connotations of this tipsy condition: "Michelangelo represents his Bacchus as the human incarnation of the vine which takes its force from the earth, and which, like vegetation, revives with the spring." For confirmation of his hypothesis, de Tolnay cites the Italian edition (1564) of Boccaccio's De Genealogia Deorum, where "this god signifies wine and his mother, Semele, the vine itself, and the father, Zeus, is warmth. This warmth, together with the moisture of the earth, goes through the vine, ripens the grapes and fills them with juice in the spring, as a womb in conception."1

Still, once one actually bothers to consult the particular Latin edition of Boccaccio (Genealogiae, Venice, 1494) which would have been most likely available to a Florentine humanist at that time, an even broader understanding of Bacchus emerges. Here Dionysus is designated the "superior Father and Sower-Cultivator of the Vine," with Boccaccio also noting how, rather like Michelangelo's Bacchus, "he was depicted in Antiquity as a nude youth or in woman's dress "and" he has tigers running alongside." Perhaps more significantly, Boccaccio tells us (quoting Servius' commentary on the Aeneid) that "Father

1 Boccaccio, as quoted in Tolnay, Michelangelo I, 143–44.

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