This fascinating allegorical picture is a recent and significant addition to the oeuvre of Sebastiano Filippi, il Bastianino, an artist closely linked with the final flowering of Ferrarese painting under Alfonso II d'Este (1533-1597), the last reigning Duke of Ferrara, and the celebrated patron of writers, poets and philosopers, including Tasso, Guarini and Cremonini. Trained by his father, Camillo Filippi, who had in turn been trained by Battista Dossi and Girolamo da Carpi, Bastianino epitomises the Ferrarese School, his style having close links to the classicism of his father's two teachers and, through them respectively, to Dosso Dossi and Garofalo.
Unique as the only known secular work in il Bastianino's oeuvre, this picture is marked by the same erudition that characterises many of his sacred works, a reflection of the respect that was given to the development of allegories in an enigmatic and complex symbolic language at the Ferrarese court. The central figure of the group is a drunken Bacchus, symbolising both the vice and the virtue that can come from drink. His depiction combines two iconographic types from Cesare Ripa's seminal Iconologia: 'Allegrezza' (Mirth), whose attributes are a plump face, a garland of flowers worn on the head, and a crystal vessel, full of red wine, held high in the right hand; and 'Gola' (Gluttony) or 'Ingordia' (Greed), who is to be depicted as ugly, fat and slovenly, 'dressed in a russet gown to show that vice consumes her as rust eats iron'.
This juxtaposition between the negative and positive potential of drinking wine is continued, symbolically, in the group of figures around Bacchus, with those on the viewer's right embodying the dangers of wine, those on the viewer's left, its benefits. The woman with a spindle in her headdress, the chained ape and the magpie are conventional emblems of lust, uninhibited behaviour and licentious speech--the gossiping magpie refers to wine's loosening of tongues and giving away of secrets. On the other side, the young page dressed in courtly garb receives the nourishment of wine with calm satisfaction, while the young man holding a sack of stones is a reference to the Old Testament account of David, who goes to meet Goliath with precisely five stones, as here. David, the Poet King whose naked dance before the Ark has Bacchic overtones, symbolises man's ability to overcome, ultimately, the ills of drink and instead derive from it poetic inspiration. In parallel with this complex symbolism, the figures grouped around Bacchus can also be read as representatives of all the walks of life, who come together to pay homage to the powerful Mysteries of wine.
The thin application of paint is characteristic of il Bastianino's handling, as is the grey colouring of the Bacchic figure's tunic. The face of the youth carrying stones is close to a profile in il Bastianino's 'Exaltation of the Holy Cross' in the Pinacoteca, Ferrara, and supports a dating to the 1570s--a turning point in the artist's career.
Formerly attributed to Annibale Carracci by Sir Denis Mahon, the attribution to Bastianino has been confirmed separately by Professor Daniele Benati and Aidan Weston-Lewis, to both of whom we are grateful.