Important Art by Caravaggio
It is probable that Caravaggio executed this self-portrait whilst in the employment of frescoist Giuseppe Cesari and the painting's carefully worked still life elements demonstrates the influence of Cesari's tutelage. Caravaggio's 17th-century biographer Giovanni Baglione identifies this painting as one of a group of the artist's early self-portraits painted with the aid of a convex mirror, a contention supported by the figure's awkward pose, as if turned to ensure better visibility in the mirror surface. The image may have been a 'cabinet piece' but was not, as far as is known, a commissioned work.
The title Sick Bacchus, a seemingly apt title for the subject's pallor and dark, hooded eyes, can be attributed to art historian Roberto Longhi, who believed that the artist painted it after he was discharged from the hospital, following an incident in which the artist was kicked by a horse and sustained severe injuries. Alternatively, the image's greenish coloration might simply be ascribed to a nighttime setting appropriate for the bacchanalia which was about to ensue. Bacchus was a fitting alter-ego for Caravaggio as he was the deity of wine, theater, ritualized displays of ecstasy and was synonymous with inspiration and destruction. The portrait, however, differs from traditional representations of Bacchus where he is depicted in the midst of unbridled celebration, often in a verdant landscape. Caravaggio's image adheres to the conventions of many of the artist's other works, presenting the mythological figure in a sparse interior. In addition, the artist's pallor and sedentary pose suggest not a deity in his prime, celebrating the virtues of wine and festivity, but rather the consequences of over-indulgence. Indeed, the ivy leaves encircling the artist's head have started to wither, a few of the grapes in his hands have begun to shrivel, and the two lush apricots in the painting's foreground betray the beginning brown spots of rot.
Cindy Sherman later famously reinterpreted this painting, posing herself as Caravaggio's Bacchus, in her 1990 photograph Untitled #224 (after Caravaggio's Bacchus).
This work is one of two paintings representing the same subject matter; the other painting is in the Roberto Longhi Foundation in Florence. Here, a young boy, an example of the tousled, curly-haired youth who populated many of Caravaggio's early secular pieces, recoils in pain and surprise after having reached for one of the fruits on the table only to be bitten by a lizard, concealed among the pile of cherries. Though Caravaggio condemned Classical statuary, the boy's expression may have its root in the expression of horror found in the statue of Laocoön and His Sons, and the lizard is reminiscent of the reptile portrayed in the ancient Roman sculpture Lizard Apollo, which would have been in Rome in Caravaggio's time.
On the table, Caravaggio demonstrates his skill rendering the play of light over and through different textures. In keeping with Caravaggio's wider style, the boy exists in a nondescript, timeless interior, with blank walls punctuated only by a stark, diagonal light source originating from the upper left, and outside the frame of the painting. This heightens the intense expression of the piece, as it highlights the boy's bare right shoulder, raised as he recoils from the bite; his furrowed brow and mouth open in a gasp. The work is notable in large part for its striking sexual subtext. In the Italian street slang of Caravaggio's time, bitten fingers represented a wounded phallus, and the artist's inclusion of jasmine, a traditional symbol of sexual desire, in combination with the lizard lurking beneath the cherries and apples, each signifiers of temptation, suggests that the painting illustrates the perils of indulging in sexual appetites.
This work is an example of the Venetian pictorial genre of a 'concert' picture, exemplified by Titian's earlier 1510 work, The Pastoral Concert, in which artists celebrated the performance of music. This image, however, subverts the genre in a number of ways challenging traditional readings of it - it depicts a rehearsal rather than a concert and the inclusion of the classical clothing of the musicians and a winged cupid in the upper left of the image signals a symbolic intent probably linking music, love and wine (represented by the grapes in the cupid's hand).
The figures crowding the image seem to have been drawn separately and added to the composition. The central musician has been identified as Caravaggio's companion Mario Minniti and the other figure facing the viewer is possibly a self-portrait. The musicians are rehearsing madrigals and the lute player in the center is transported by the music, his wet eyes and dreamy expression suggesting sadness and lost love. The inclusion of a violin in the foreground indicates the presence of another musician. Caravaggio's patron, Cardinal del Monte, for whom this work was commissioned, was interested in music and he and his friends tutored musicians and encouraged musical experimentation. The crowded space of The Musicians may invoke the musical environment found in del Monte's household.