(Arezzo 1769 – 1844 Florence)

Bacchus and Ariadne

Oil on canvas
55 3/4 x 39 1/4 inches
(143 x 100 cm)

Signed and dated P. Benvenuti / 1819


By Giovanni Battista Balestra after a design by Vincenzo Gozzini; published in Niccolo Palmerini, Pitture del Cavaliere Pietro Benvenuti (Pisa 1821)


Colonel Wilson, England
Private Collection, Rome
Sale, Bruun Rasmussen, Copenhagen, Feb. 29, 2000, lot 308
Private Collection, U.S.A. (until 2018)


Ugo Viviani, Arezzo e gli Aretini; pagine raccolte (Arezzo 1921), pp. 183, 185.

Pietro Benvenuti, 1769-1844: mostra di opere inedite nel secondo centenario della nascita, ed. C. Del Bravo, exh. cat., Arezzo 1969, pp. 48, 91-92, pl. 14.

Liletta Fornasari, “Dipinti e disegni rintracciati.  Aggiunte al catalogo di Salvi Castellucci, Giovanni Battista Biondi, Domenico Sozzini, Gian Lorenzo Zagli, Pier Dandini, Mattia de Mare, Francesco Curradi, Pietro Benvenuti e altro, II,” in Bolletino d’Informazione.  Brigata Aretina degli Amici dei Monumenti, 70, pp. 54-56, fig. 2.

L. Fornarsari, in Ottocento ad Arezzo; La Collezione Bartolini, ed. Carlo Sisi, exh. cat., Arezzo 2003-3004, s.v. cat. no. 23, pp. 131-132 ill.

Liletta Fornasari, Pietro Benvenuti (Florence 2004), pp. 327-330, fig. 275

Alessandra Imbelloni, in L’Officina Neoclassica; Dall’Accademia de’ Pensieri al Accademia d’Italia, exh. ca. Faenza 2009, p. 168.

Liletta Fornasari, “Da giovane sussidiato dalla Fraternita dei Laici di Arezzo a ‘Principe dei Pittori Toscani,’” in Pittore Imperiale; Pietro Benvenuti alla corte di Napoleone e dei Lorena, ed Liletta Fornasari and Carlo Sisi, exh. cat., Florence: Palazzo Pitti, March 10-June 21, 2009, pp. 20-21, fig. 5 (ill. in color).

The career of Pietro Benvenuti, one of the leading figures of the Neoclassical movement in Italy, was particularly rooted in Tuscany.  He was born in Arezzo and began his studies at the Accademia di Belle Art in Florence, where he was taught by Giuseppe Piattoli and Sante Pacini.  He went to Rome when in his 20s and there his art developed not only under the influence of Vincenzo Camuccini and Antonio Canova (who would become a close friend), but also from the study of Italian Baroque painting.  Benvenuti’s career flourished in the period of French rule in Italy (1794-1814).  He returned to Florence in 1803 as Court Painter and Director of the Accademia in Florence.  Commissions from Napoleon and his sister Elisa Baciocchi, who was appointed Grand Duchess of Tuscany, followed (Versailles and Palazzo Pitti, Florence). After the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty, Benvenuti continued to receive important commissions, among which were frescoes in Palazzo Pitti and the ceiling of the Cappella dei Principi in San Lorenzo.  Throughout Benvenuti combined his love of drama with crisp and legible design to create compositions classicizing, but with a vibrant Romantic tendency. 

The present work is a notable example of Benvenuti’s independent work for private patrons.  Theseus has abandoned Ariadne, who had led him out of the Labyrinth devised by her father King Minos, on the island of Naxos.  Disconsolate in her love for Theseus, the sail of whose departing ship can be seen on the horizon, she falls asleep near rocks by the shore.  The God Bacchus, returning from India, is drawn to Ariadne by the figure of Cupid, who pulls him by his quiver strap while cautioning him to silence.  Ariadne is naked to her waist, as described by Philostratus (Imagines I.15).  Bacchus wears a crown of grape leaves, punctuated by grape clusters, and grasps in his right hand his traditional attribute, the thyrsus, a staff topped with a pine cone.  He raises his left arm in a gesture of both astonishment and protection, as he immediately falls in love with Ariadne.  In the distance at left, the aged Silenus, Bacchus’s tutor, is being helped up the hill, while Satyrs drink wine from a goblet and blow pipes, and Maenads carry baskets of grapes and play the tambourine.  Ariadne will soon awake and be consoled by Bacchus; the two will marry and enjoy eternal happiness.

The artist mentioned the Bacchus and Ariadne in his third-person autobiographical notes published by Viviani: “He painted a picture with figures one-third life size, depicting Bacchus finding Ariadne on the Island of Naxos for an English gentleman.”[1]  That English gentleman, as the dedication of the engraving published in 1823 makes clear, was a certain “Colonello Wilson,” whom we know to have been a patron of Lorenzo Bartolini as well.

An initial sketch features a standing Bacchus on the right, with Ariadne prone but supported at the lower left.[2]  A more developed drawing, detailing the essentials of the composition, is in the Casa Sandrelli, Arezzo.[3] Here Cupid appears to Bacchus’s left, while his followers are at the center right.  Bacchus’s thyrsus rests on his shoulder. In a third drawing in the Bartolini Collection, Siena, the finished composition is established.[4]

Fornasari has drawn attention to the varied influences on Benvenuti at this moment –ancient sculpture, the work of Canova, Thorvaldsen, and Venetian painting of the sixteenth-century.  Certainly there are echoes of both the Apollo Belvedere (Rome, Vatican) and Thorvaldsen’s Jason with the Golden Fleece (Copenhagen, Thorwaldsen Museum) in the pose and attitude of Bacchus in the present work, while the figure of the sleeping Ariadne recalls both ancient sculptural prototypes and the elaborations of them by Titian and his contemporaries.

[1] “Fece un quadro con figure un terzo del vero, rappresentante Bacco che trova Arianna nell’Isola di Nasso, per un Signore Inglese.”  Viviani adds a footnote indicating that the painting was engraved by [Antonio] Ricciani; however he appears to have been mistaken.

[2] Pencil, 200 x 160 mm; published by Fornasari (2000) and Fornasari (2004), fig. 276

[3] Pencil and Pen, 352 x 231/245 mm; published by Carlo Del Bravo in Pietro Benvenuti (1969), cat. no. 14.

[4] Pen and Brown Ink, 190 x 250mm (entire sheet); published by Fornasari (2003-2004), cat. no. 23.