One of Titian’s most famous paintings, Bacchus and Ariadne, is one of five commissioned by Alfonso d’Este (1486-1534) for his palace in Ferrara, Italy.  Like many Italian Renaissance princes, he had a private art gallery, known as a camerino or studiolo.  His was a camerino d’alabastro, or small alabaster room, with white marble-veneered walls to showcase his collection of Renaissance artwork.

The bacchanal paintings commissioned for the Alabaster Room are all based loosely on Roman rites and rituals described by the poet Ovid (43 B.C. – A.D. 1).

The centerpiece of the Alabaster Room was Feast of the Gods (right) by Giovanni Bellini (1430/1435 – 1516), the greatest Venetian painter of the 15th century.

Giovanni Bellini and Titian, Feast of the Gods.  Oil on canvas, 5′ 7″ x 6′ 2″.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Like Feast, the other four commissions treated the theme of love. These works are:

  1. Dosso Dossi‘s Aeneas in the Elysian Fields; 
  2. Worship of Venus by Titian;
  3. The Bacchanal of the Andrians by Titian; and
  4. Bacchus and Ariadne, the most renowned of these four Titian paintings.

In The Worship of Venus (left), Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete, aided Theseus in his escape from the Minotaur‘s labyrinth, subsequently falling in love with the Athenian hero.

Titian, The Worship of Venus.  Oil on canvas, 1516  – 1518.  5’8″ x 5’8″. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Ungrateful for her assistance, he callously abandoned her on the Greek island of Naxos, where she wandered in mourning.  In Bacchus and Ariadne, she hopelessly extends her hand toward Theseus’ dimly visible ship.  At that moment, her life is miraculously transformed by the scene Titian memorializes in this landmark painting – love at first sight from, and toward, Bacchus, the god of wine.

Bacchus is immediately recognizable both by the laurel and grape leaves adorning his hair, and by his company of satyrs and maenads (Bacchus groupies); one of these crashes cymbals while in a pose mirroring Ariadne’s. He bounds from his chariot, pulled her by cheetahs rather than leopards.  This deviation from tradition is Titian’s nod to Bacchus’ conquest of India.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne. Oil on canvas, c. 1522-23. 5′ 9″ x 6′ 3″. National Gallery, London

On the far right, the strongman Laocoon would have been immediately identifiable to the Italian Renaissance audience: an antique statue of this Trojan priest was unearthed in 1505, inspiring cross-references from many Renaissance painters and artists. The fat, elder man seemingly asleep on a donkey is Silenus, the head of the satyrs and foster-father to Bacchus.

In the middle foreground is a baby satyr who alone directly engages the viewer.  He dons a garland and drags a calf head; its dismemberment – and drinking of its blood by the revelers – is a gruesome part of Bacchus’ ritual.  In the lower left, Titian’s name is inscribed in Latin on the urn, and translates as “Titian made this picture”.  He was one of the first Renaissance painters to sign his artwork, and was an early proponent of improving the lowly social status of painters.

Curiously, this didn’t include maintaining the integrity of paintings completed by others. Feast, completed in 1514, was altered by Ferrara’s court painter, Dosso Dossi, who reportedly altered the painting to coordinate with other decorations in the Alabaster Room. Additional (and well-documented) alterations were made in 1529 by Bellini’s student, Titian, who completely repainted the background. It is not known if this alteration was also made to complement other ‘decorations’ in the Alabaster Room!  When the Este family lost control on Ferrara in 1598, these famous paintings and sculptures were dispersed.

Note: If anyone knows when it became unacceptable to re-paint another artist’s completed work, I’d appreciation learning — it is so remote from today’s standards!