Young Sick Bacchus
The Young Sick Bacchus (Bacchino Malato), also known as the Sick Bacchus or the Self-Portrait as Bacchus, is an early self-portrait by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, dated between 1593 and 1594.
The artwork dates from Caravaggio’s first years in Rome when he moved to the Eternal City from his native Milan in the mid-1592. According to historians, the artist was ill at that period and spent six months in the hospital of Santa Maria della Consolazione. The painting probably indicates that Caravaggio’s physical ailment involved malaria, as the appearance of his skin and icterus in the eyes are key factors of active hepatic disease leading to high bilirubin levels.
The painting was in the collection of Giuseppe Cesari, Caravaggio’s early employer. Later, the Sick Bacchus was purchased by Cardinal-Nephew Scipione Borghese in 1607, together with the Boy Peeling Fruit and Boy with a Basket of Fruit.
Giovanni Pietro Bellori mentions the painting in his “Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti moderni” (1642) – “and he made a number of small self-portraits using a mirror. And the first was a Bacchus with several bunches of grapes, made with great diligence but rather dry” – and referred to the period right after he had worked as the Cavalier d’Arpino’s studio hand.
The description of the artwork could also refer to the Bacchus in the Uffizi Gallery (Florence). The style of a young man noticed by Baglione shows in this work, dated to 1593/94. This oil on canvas portrait was confiscated from the Cavalier d’Arpino on the orders of Paul V, and it was ascribed to Caravaggio in 1693 and later in 1790.
It is challenging to combine the traditional designation of Bacchus with the fact that the young man wears a wreath of ivy: ivy was certainly a sacred plant for Bacchus, but his wreath usually consists of grape leaves or vine leaves interlaced with ivy. Indeed, it is possible that early attempts to catalog an image as “Satyr,” for example, in the Borghese inventory of 1790, were not so mistaken since a wreath of ivy was one of the attributes of these bacchic followers. This may also explain the particular coloring of the figure, which Roberto Longhi suggested is a sign of illness, claiming that the picture was a self-portrait painted by Caravaggio when he was recovering from a hypothetical attack of malaria, as mentioned above.
According to the story of Mancini, Caravaggio was the victim of a horse kick. Since the work was probably created when Caravaggio was working in the Studio d’Arpino, in the painting, you can see a reference to the elegant poet, described in Alciati’s popular Emblematfi as a pale youth decorated with ivy.
In addition to the intended autobiographical content, this early painting was probably used by Caravaggio to advertise himself, demonstrating his virtuosity in such painting genres as still lifes and portraits and hinting at the ability to paint classical figures of antiquity. A three-quarter pose angle was preferred for portraits of the late Renaissance, but striking is the grimace and tilt of the head and the natural feeling of suffering, a feature illustrated in most baroque art.
Still, life can be compared to what is contained in later works, such as the “Boy with a Basket of Fruits” and the “Boy Bitten by a Lizard,” where the fruits are much better depicted, which undoubtedly shows the improvement of Caravaggio’s condition both physically and mentally.