Bacchanalia: Caravaggio, Chiaroscuro und Cabernet by John Axelrod ©2018


Bacchus is that antiquated, artistically depicted, dastardly deity of debauchery.  You’ve got to love the guy.  So did artists and composers.

 Of course, there are more important figures of antiquity and the bible who have been depicted in art and music.  But Bacchus has, well, a special flavor.  Maybe it is because he is simply more fun.  A good wine has been known to inspire many a good toast.  Yes, even my own blog about wine and music is after a quote from Beethoven, himself declaring: declaring: “I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken.”

Danse Baccanale from Saint-Saëns might be the “go-to choice” when it comes to music and the visual arts.  It is connected to Bacchus and this concert piece is famous for its exoticism, castenets, minor modes and fanfares.  But I would also suggest that the rarely heard Cortège de Bacchus from Delibes’ ballet Sylvia deserves your attention, like some wines outside the mainstream that deserve to be known.  This work encompasses all of the grandeur that French ballet offers, but also intoxicates with a pulse in 6/8 that never lets go. 

Bacchus from Caravaggio, that masterpiece of chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and darkness, is our inspiration. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio made the technique a dominant stylistic element, darkening shadows and transfixing subjects in bright shafts of light.

“Bacchus”  painted in 1597-98, was painted during a rather peaceful and relaxing time in his life, in contrast to his other “Sick Bacchus,” painted during a convalescence after illness. The painting is a portrait of a young man in the image of the Greek God. Bacchus is half-dressed in white robes in a belted black belt, the end of which he holds in his right hand. With his left hand he holds a glass full of wine, as if offering the viewer to participate in the feast. On the table in front of the deity is a bowl with fruit and a pot-bellied bottle of wine, that interestingly has been alleged to contain a reflected portrait of the painter himself.

Bacchus is healthy, muscular, even voluptuous, with cheeks flushed, dark eyebrows, his face puffy and somewhat effeminate, like a Japanese Geisha at the bath, and in his eyes there is nothing but half-drunk longing.   The fruit on the table, most notably the pomegranate, is a symbol of original sin and innocence lost.  This is desire incarnate, teasing the viewer to partake of this “Elisir d’Amore.”

Music has its contrasts between light and dark, major and minor, dynamics and instrumentation.  The idea of Bacchus in music must naturally include the oboe and flute, those twin seducers, and the percussion and brass with their majestic marches and sparkling bells and whistles.  The strings add rhythmic pulse, scintillating glissandi and melodic vibrations.  The orchestra manifests the orgiastic state of the bacchanal.

Saint-Saëns does a good job in capturing this pagan ritual, inviting the listener to dance.  The Delibes is instead the introduction to the feast, the welcoming of the God.  This is about Bacchus, not the dance, as Caravaggio may have intended:  delectable, delightful, devilish and delicious. 

Those words obviously suggest a wine.  Wine also requires the sunlight and darkness to produce ample effect on the growing of the grapes.  There are two wines related to our Caravaggio:  The Forchini Proprieter’s Reserve Zinfandel is an award winning wine for the connoisseur, as a Caravaggio is for a collector of Old Masters of the Renaissance.  This wine has a deep purple color, with aromas and flavors of chocolate orange peels, roasted pistachio nougat, spumoni, and latte and light molasses with a satiny, tangy, fruity medium body and a sleek, complex, medium-long spiced apricot orange, combined with apple, hint of anise, cedar, and honeyed peppercorns, finished with well-integrated, chewy tannins and light oak.  This voluminous description befits the Bacchus we know and love.   But it is a wine difficult to find, and much harder to buy in Europe. 

Instead, try the very affordable and just as drinkable Marsovin Caravaggio Cabernet Sauvingon, with the Bacchus on its label.  Marsovin hails from Malta, that Mediterranean isle more famous for its crusader past than for artistic exiles.  Yet, that’s where our hero came after being punished for his violent temper. 

Marsovin has been the pioneer in wine making in Malta during the course of its history.  Today, Marsovin is recognized by many wine enthusiasts on the island as Malta’s most distinguished premium red wine. Its Caravaggio Cabernet Sauvignon is a generous, rounded red wine with intense ripe forest fruit aromas of blackcurrants, blackberries and some discrete chocolate mint undertones.  It tastes as the Caravaggio looks.  Decadent.   However, on the palate, it is well structured with ample supple, velvety tannins; lightness in the  nose and a very enjoyable long, lingering finish.  The dialogue between the intense and the sublime, between the light and dark corresponds precisely to the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio and the contrasting colors found in the music of Saint-Saëns and Delibes.  Pop the cork, put on the Cortége, and be prepared for the deity to arrive.  That will give you reason to believe that Beethoven was right to be spiritually drunk, all in the name of music and art.




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