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Fig. 1 Michelangelo, Bacchus. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence/ Alinari Archive. Reproduced by kind permission of the Alinari Archive. 201 A Revolting Mistake: Walter Pater’s Iconography of Dionysus Stefa no Eva ngelista • Travelling in Italy in 1819, Shelley came across Michelangelo’s statue of Bacchus, in Florence (fig. 1). His reaction of strong aversion is documented in his Notes on Sculptures in Rome and Florence: The countenance of this figure is the most revolting mistake of the spirit and meaning of Bacchus. It looks drunken, brutal, and narrow-minded, and has an expression of dissoluteness the most revolting.The lower part of the figure is stiff, and the manner in which the shoulders are united to the breast, and the neck to the head, abundantly inharmonious. It is altogether without unity, as was the idea of the Deity of Bacchus in the conception of a Catholic. (Complete Works 6: 329)1 Shelley considers Michelangelo’s emphasis on intoxication and sensualism to be totally inadequate for the representation of a classical subject. He accuses Michelangelo of blasphemy in inverted, pagan terms: his Catholic culture is seen as an impediment to a sympathetic understanding of the pagan subject. The lack of harmony and unity of the figure is an outward sign of this perversion . In short, Michelangelo’s work is a “revolting mistake”—a complete failure because inspired by a fundamental misconception of classical aesthetics. Shelley concludes by noting that the sculpture “wants as a work of art unity and simplicity; as a representation of the Greek Deity of Bacchus it wants every thing” (6: 329). In contrast to his reaction to Michelangelo’s statue, Shelley praises a Roman group of Bacchus and Ampelus for having a divine and supernatural beauty, as one who walks through the world untouched by its corruptions, its corrupting cares; it looks like one who unconsciously yet with delight confers pleasure and peace …. Like some fine strain of harmony which flows round the soul and enfolds it, and leaves it in the soft astonishment of a satisfaction, like the pleasure of love with one whom we must love, which having taken away desire, leaves pleasure, sweet pleasure. (6: 319–20) victorian review • Volume 34 Number 2 202 Read side by side, Shelley’s critiques reveal more about Shelley’s own views on ancient Greek art than about Michelangelo’s shortcomings. For Shelley, classical art was characterized by an overwhelming sense of harmony, reflected in both form and subject matter. What lay outside these canons must be untrue to the Hellenic ideal. At the time of writing his notes on the sculptures of Bacchus, Shelley had just finished reading a French edition of Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s History of the Art of Antiquity (1764), and the influence of this text is clear in his fragments on antique sculpture, which can be interpreted as exercises in Winckelmannian ekphrasis.2 Winckelmann had seen Apollo, the god of light, dignity, and perfect form, as the fittest symbolic embodiment of what was most admirable in Greek art and thought—what he called “edle Einfalt und stille Grösse” (simplicity and grandeur). He famously described the statue of Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican as the “highest ideal of art among all the works of antiquity that have escaped its destruction” (333). In 1819, Shelley evaluates the statue of Bacchus according to Winckelmann’s Apollonian ideal and consequently censors Michelangelo’s “mistake” in representing the “expression of dissoluteness” and the sexual lasciviousness of the feminized man. Winckelmann’sApollonian classicism was a shaping influence on the development of nineteenth-century Hellenism throughout Europe. In England, Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869) and John Ruskin in The Queen of the Air (1869) and Aratra Pentelici (1872) promoted a vision of Greek art and culture that was defined by the aesthetics of dignity and containment associated with the sun-god. These canons remained largely unchallenged until the end of the nineteenth century, whenWalter Pater, in his essays“A Study of Dionysus” (1876) and “The Bacchanals of Euripides” (1889) and his imaginary portrait “Denys l’Auxerrois” (1886), systematically tried to create a place within classicism for what was traditionally perceived as anti-classical or romantic, for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 201-218
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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