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The Most Famous Triumph of Bacchus

by Ryan Drabble and Hunter Dail


Unidentified Artist, Il Famosissimo Triompho Di Bacco (The Most Famous Triumph of Bacchus), 1594, Print of Engraving. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Produced in Italy in 1594, this monumental piece depicts a Bacchanalia, a Latin word describing the procession or celebration of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, agriculture, and rituals. The engraving was created in Italy during a time defined by conflict between the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation. Both movements brought about ensuing slander, iconoclasm, and redefining the way people, clergy, and Churches understood worship especially through art. Il Famosissimo Triompho Di Bacco calls attention to ideals of feast and culture as degradation of church ideals in chaotic, reckless imagery of drunken fauns, contorted faces, and a demolished building in the background that could be a reference to the decomposition of the Church. With calls for reformation in the church, the artist may have seen this as an act of destruction for traditional, pre-Reformation beliefs and practices. The illustrator represents the feast as a gluttonous pleasure-and-satisfaction-seeking bounty through the spillage of various liquids and the absurd, likely drunken, expressions of the procession participants. Furthermore, Bacchus is illustrated as a savior who should be celebrated. Four of his main symbols are portrayed in this piece: wine, masks, thyrsi, and fauns.


With respect to the feast, in the engraving we can actually see contradictions and oppositions to a feast, such that one could call this celebration an anti-feast. Feasts are often associated with abundance and copiousness, however this abundance can be distinguished from overindulgence, as is seen in Il Famosissimo Triompho Di Bacco, such that this can be considered an anti-feast. Similar to the overindulgence seen by Comte de Reynaud in the film, Chocolat, the pleasure and ephemeral satisfaction is seen during the consumption, however this is followed by a period of regret, shamefulness, and grief. In this engraving the period of regret is not shown, but can be interpreted to be the hangovers and feelings of regret likely experienced the next day. The overindulgence of alcohol is a prominent feature of this engraving, as described in the following paragraphs.


The emphasis of this piece is alcohol and its pleasure-driven attributes: freedom, playful enjoyment, racy activities, and reckless behavior, all facilitated through the over-consumption of wine. Looking past the fauns in drunken stupor, there is a clear persistence of flowing liquids and spilled wine. A broken amphora, a Roman wine vessel, lay on its side spilling wine on the ground. A woman stands drinking wine while urinating herself. A man lay on the ground, passed out and vomiting. The flowage depicted is symbolic of ritualistic freedom where “all modesty [is] set aside; every kind of vice found here [is] full satisfaction” (Schmitz). In gluttony, people and fauns attempt to find satisfaction in unfiltered actions, moving across the extra-long print as a flowing liquid, uncaring of perception or manners, only feasting on the high of the moment (and wine).

One symbol illustrated in this piece is the thyrsus, a staff tipped with an ornament such as a pinecone, commonly carried by Bacchus and his followers. Thyrsi in ancient Roman culture symbolized general pleasure and enjoyment (“Dionysus”). Paired with the excessive alcohol described above, the thyrsi further the author’s intentions of depicting such insatiable satisfaction. Masks in Ancient Rome were commonly utilized during celebrations and were also a symbol of Bacchus. Celebrants of the Bacchanalia wore masks and danced in groups in order to simulate the stopping of reality. All identities, obligations, and responsibilities were forgotten, and complete attention was focused on the celebration at hand.



 

Works Cited


“Dionysus.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Feb. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysus.


Schmitz, Leonhard. “Bacchanalia.” LacusCurtius • Roman Religion – The Bacchanalia (Smith’s Dictionary, 1875), 31 Mar. 2018, penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Bacchanalia.html. “Great Dionysia.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 23 Jan. 2012, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Great-Dionysia.


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