This painting, by the Italian artist Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (c. 1610-1662), depicts a Greco-Roman god of vegetation. The figure can be identified either as Vertumnus, a god of seasons and plant life, or the Greek god of wine, Dionysus (the Roman Bacchus). Physical description for Vertumnus is difficult, as he was a shapeshifter who could change his physique and appearance. The Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE) described Vertumnus’ skill at transformation:
“He is young and he’s blessed by nature with wonderful looks;
he can change into any form that he likes to suit the occasion.
He’ll be whatever you tell him to be, no matter how strange.”
(Ovid, Metamorphosis, 14.684-686)
Romanelli’s painting similarly resembles a common visual depiction of Bacchus or Dionysus as a handsome youth. Although the god could be depicted in vastly different forms, such as a pot-bellied and bearded man, the youthful depiction of the wine deity was popular, especially to the Romans. The aforementioned poet Ovid described this youthful portrayal of Dionysus/Bacchus:
“Father of revels and cries ecstatic, Mystic Iácchus,
and all the other numberless names which Liber is known by
throughout the cities of Greece. For yours indeed is unperishing
youth and eternal boyhood. You have the comeliest form
of all the gods of Olympus, a face in your hornless epiphany
fair as a virgin girl’s.”
(Ovid, Metamorphosis, 4.15-20)
Such then are the possible identities for this lounging god. The European Union’s Europeana database of cultural materials labels the god as Bacchus. Yet, the National Museum in Stockholm, Sweden—which possesses the artwork—contrastingly lists the piece under the title, Vertumnus.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.