Bacchus and Ariadne
(Crescenzo Gamba)


These two panels, representing mythological scenes, were recently attributed to Gamba by Nicola Spinosa.[1] The style accords well with the artist’s earlier work such as The Triumph of the Carthusian Virtues of Order over Vice in S. Martino, Naples where a highly ornate chinoiserie type of rocaille decoration imported from France and Saxony is apparent for the first time in Naples. Gamba’s participation on several decorative schemes with Vincenzo Re, a renowned theatre designer from Parma, resulted in a particularly light and delicious form of Rococo embellishment.

The present panels probably formed part of a cabinet or large piece of furniture with the bottom sight edge engaged.

Bacchus, originally a god of fertility, was the Roman god of wine. Bacchus is usually portrayed as a youth crowned with a wreath of vine leaves and grapes, as in our picture. He is traditionally shown as inebriated, often holding a cup of wine, a Thyrsus (a symbol of fertility) and entwined with ivy. The triumphal car, as in our picture, is often drawn by leopards, sacred to the deity[2] and it has been suggested that the depiction of leopards is due to his cult having spread to Asia. The god is seen here in triumph attended by Maeneads and Satyrs blowing snake like horns and clashing cymbals for the song and dance of the ritual.

In the second panel Bacchus, looking a trifle more sober, has been distracted from his libation and is seriously engaged in admiring his companion’s décolleté. Though often seen accompanied by Ceres, the goddess of plenty, it seems probable that his companion here is in fact Ariadne. They are usually seen together in a triumphal procession with Bacchus astride a goat or an ass, together with assorted putti and attendants blowing pipes and generally creating a din. The artist appears to have chosen a moment after this triumphal excursion when Bacchus is perhaps contemplating engaging in more serious and demanding pursuits!

Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete. Having rescued and then subsequently been abandoned by her lover, Theseus, on the island of Naxos, she was in her turn rescued by Bacchus. Gamba may have chosen the moment when Ariadne is lamenting her fate to the attentive god who,[3] having thrown her jewelled crown to the heavens where it was transformed into a constellation, readily consoled and later married her.

A variation on this story is provided by Ovid[4] which tells how Bacchus had indeed already abandoned Ariadne at an earlier date before travelling east and that this event marks a happy reunion. The docile leopard dozing at their feet may indicate that the artist was basing his interpretation upon this story.


[1] Oral communication.

[2] Cf.. Philostratus, Eikones, 1:19.

[3] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8:176-182.

[4] Fasti 3:459-516

22 3/16 x 17 ½ in. 44.5 x 56.4 cm.
Oil on panel

Matthiesen Gallery, ‘Collectanea’, 1999

Historical Period
Rococo - 1720-1780
Italian - Neapolitan
1999-Collectanea 1700-1800.
Hard back catalogue of the Exhibition held in London and New York, 220 pages fully illustrated with 46 colour plates. £30 or $40 inc. p.& p.

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