Discarded deity: the rejection of Michelangelo's Bacchus and the artist's response



Cardinal Raffaele Riario (1460–1521) hired Michelangelo in 1496 to carve a life-size Bacchus for display in his new palace. Bank records and the artist's letters prove that Michelangelo spent a year carving the sculpture, for which he was paid in full. Although scholars agree that the patron never possessed the work, determining why Riario rejected the sculpture has proven more difficult. This paper considers how the Bacchus would have contributed to the cardinal's thoughtfully constructed identity – and why the meaning would have been desirable in 1496, but unacceptable a year later. In June 1497, Riario was occupied with an intense political situation that made installing the nude pagan figure imprudent. The patron chose to leave the sculpture where it was carved, on a property owned by Jacopo Galli (†1505). Deeply insulted, Michelangelo became painfully aware of the imbalance of power in artist-patron relationships. This essay also addresses how Michelangelo intervened in his biographies written by Giorgio Vasari (1511–74) and Ascanio Condivi (c. 1525–74) to ensure the identification of Jacopo Galli as patron of the Bacchus and deride the cardinal.