A children’s bacchanal, 1533

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)

A children’s bacchanal, 1533

1533

Red chalk

27.4 x 38.8 cm

Royal Collection by c.1810


Like the Fall of Phaeton, this ‘presentation drawing’ was executed by Michelangelo as a gift for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. The level of finish is extraordinary, even by Michelangelo’s standards, and the sheet is almost perfectly preserved. The children represent the lowest state of humanity, devoid of reason (also denoted by the drunken slumber of the only adult human) and acting in a semi-animal manner, made explicit by the satyress suckling at lower left.

This drawing of A Children’s bacchanal was executed by Michelangelo as a gift for his friend Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. Vasari (who knew Michelangelo well) mentioned it last among the four sheets made for Cavalieri in 1532-3, and as some of the figures in the composition were copied by Michelangelo’s Florentine assistant Raffaello da Montelupo, it must have been begun before Michelangelo left Florence for Rome for the last time, in October 1533. The level of finish is extraordinary, even by Michelangelo’s standards. Working mainly with the sharpened point of the chalk, the artist maintained a consistent level of exquisite workmanship across the whole of the densely figured sheet. The state of preservation of the sheet is almost perfect, except for a little trimming around the edges as shown by early engravings after the drawing.

The scene is a cave or other rocky setting hung with drapery. At upper left, children stir a cauldron, while others stoke its fire; beyond hang a hare and the head of a boar, a small boar is borne on a child’s shoulders, and at the centre a group struggle to carry in a deer. At upper right is a wine butt, from which some children drink, while another urinates into a wine bowl that is doubtless to be offered to one of his companions. Below, a man sleeps, apparently under the effect of the wine, while to the left an old satyr-woman suckles a child.

No textual source is known for the imagery, but the meaning is clear. The infants represent the lowest state of humanity, devoid of reason (also denoted by the drunken slumber of the only adult human) and thus acting in a semi-animal manner, made explicit by the satyr-woman. At one level this is a standard Neoplatonic theme; less seriously, it may also be possible to see in the drawing a warning from the austere Michelangelo to the adolescent Cavalieri about the perils of drink.

Many of the motifs are derived from antique sarcophagi of children, of which several were known in the sixteenth century. While the echoes of Raphael’s Entombment of 1507 (now Galleria Borghese, Rome; then in San Francesco al Prato, Perugia), in the opposed straining of the central group, may be thought of as generic, the kneeling putto at upper right replicates the complex pose of the holy woman at the lower right of that painting, turned through ninety degrees. This is not a simple quotation: Michelangelo was repaying a compliment, for Raphael had taken his figure from the Virgin in Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (Uffizi), also turning her through ninety degrees. In effect, Michelangelo was here replicating the pose of his own Doni Virgin, seen from behind. That Raphael was an intermediary in this transformation is demonstrated by the echoes of the Borghese Entombment in a double-sided drawing by Michelangelo in Bayonne. On the recto of that sheet is a Lamentation - actually little different in iconography from Raphael’s painting, which is in fact a Lamentation and carrying of Christ’s body to the tomb - that quotes Raphael’s composition directly in at least two elements; on the verso is what appears to be a preparatory sketch for the Children’s bacchanal, showing a group of putti around (and some climbing into) a large wine vat, with a recumbent male nude immediately to the left.

RL 12777


Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007