Michelangelo's Children's Bacchanal: an allegory of the intemperate soul?



The Children's Bacchanal is not only the most consummate but also the most baffling of the drawings Michelangelo executed for Tommaso de' Cavalieri. This article provides a new reading of the work by undertaking a thorough analysis of the compositional elements. In the process, the significance of some previously misunderstood details are clarified and the allegory made more pertinent to the artist's life and work. The article posits that the drawing was a visual exemplum of what Ficino considered the threats posed to the human soul by the excess of love for the elemental body. While in the upper half of the sheet Michelangelo may have alluded to the ‘incontinent man’, an individual in whom the ‘tumultuous corporeal passion prevails’, in the sleeping youth depicted in the lower portion he may have referred to ‘the intemperate man’. For such a person ‘reason slept entirely or completely succumbed to desire’ during his lifetime while ‘after death it is weighed down by an even deeper slumber and troubled by even more frightening dreams’. If the interpretation here adduced is closer to the artist's intentions, it may be more appropriate to define the drawing an Allegory of the Intemperate Soul.