Wine & Art - Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne with a glass of Retsina
Updated: Feb 14
Combining my love of wine and art, this time I'm pairing Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, which you can see at the National Gallery, with Georgas Family Retsina wine. Retsina is the style of wine, which means it has pine resin added to it! And yes, you would be right to think this is a little strange, but it does in fact have a history stretching back over 2000 years.
The practise of putting pine resin from the Aleppo tree into wine was to stop it from oxidising, and keeping the wine fresh for longer. But over the years it has become a style the Greeks grew quite accustomed to. Some of you may have tried it on your holidays in Greece as it really is perfect with the local food there - especially Greek salad.
The earliest record of the style of wine is from the 1st century by the Roman writer Columella. It seems he wasn't really taken by the style of wine and was actually recommending to stay away from the stuff! In fact during the Roman conquest of Greece, apparently the locals starting putting a lot more resin into the wines to try and put the Romans off stealing it!
For this paricular Retsina, we are going to Sparta, not to far from Athens. With only 4 hectares of vineyards, it really is unique and it's another example of an organic and biodynamic wine. It's made from the Savatiano grape, it sees two days of skin contact and the outcome is pretty distinctive.
On the nose I get lots of savoury notes. Plenty of that pine resin coming through, some yeasty notes, balsamic notes but also something sweet too - honey and baked quince. It's an incredibly complex wine and just perfect with food, so perhaps not a wine I would recommend to enjoy it on its own. So why not enjoy it with art?
How about a glass of Retsina with Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian.
Painted 1520-3, this dynamic scene captures the highly charged moment when Bacchus the Roman god of wine, has first set eyes on Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, and the two fall instantly fall love. The painting is full of sublime movement, from Bacchus leaping out of his chariot with his rippling cloak, to the dancing forms of the revellers who follow and play their instruments. This rather chaotic retinue fills the lower right-hand corner, while the left is dominated by the beautiful draped figure of Ariadne and the vibrant blue sky.
We know the story of the pair through the Latin poems by Ovid and Catullus. Ariadne, after helping her lover Theseus slay the minotour, the beast imprisoned in the labyrinth, has been abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos.
She reaches out towards his boat which is seen sailing off into the distance, but her head is turned by the arrival of the party.
Bacchus is caught mid air, jumps unselfconsciously out of the chariot, it's unnatural and he probably won't land in the most elegant of ways, but he's so taken by her, he's totally forgotten about himself and everything else around him. He's absolutely incapsulated with the beauty of Ariadne and the feeling of new love he feels towards her. She seems a bit torn, she reaches out after her lovers boat as it sails away, but she turns and sees Bacchus and seems quite taken with this new man who has entered the scene, the movement further accentuated by her red scarf that wraps around her. The bright colours of the pure ultramarine blue sky and Ariadne's clothes really bring this painting brimming with energy and passion to life.
The entourage also look like they are having a whale of a time! On the far right a satyr covered in grapevines waving a bulls leg in the air, whilst the bacchante following Bacchus waves a tambourine in the air, adding to the sense of riotous joy and energetic excitement. Even the satyr in the foreground struggling with the snakes seems to be dancing along, this was in fact based on the classical sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons which was discovered a few years before this painting was produced. But this rebellious, drunken procession is also fuelled with power, aggression and a hint of violence – see the half man half goat baby satyr down at the bottom who drags along a severed calfs head as if the company have ripped apart the animal in a state of frenzy.
The former leader of this rabble, Bacchus's foster-father is depicted towards the back of the procession as the fat Silenus. Who is sleeping off his hangover whilst his companions try to prevent him from falling off his donkey.
Tiziano Vecello, known to us as Titian, was born in a small town at the foot of the Dolomites, in the Veneto region. He arrived in Venice at a young age, and started his artistic training with some of the most prominent artists of the day. He was a highly successful artist, painting a number of well known paintings, and soon became a painter in high demand at the courts in Europe. After an extremely successful career, he sadly died of plague in 1576.
He helpfully signed this work, if you look a little closer on the golden vase on the yellow fabric, and the dog to the right is said to be a later addition, when Alfonso asked for his own pet dog to make an appearance in the scene. It's also believed that the cheetahs pulling along the chariot were from the Dukes menagerie, as in classical drawings these are usually lions or panthers. Notice they do lock eyes, mirroring those of Bacchus and Ariadne.
The story of Bacchus and Ariadne continues, and they eventually go on to marry. As a wedding gift he gave her a crown of stars which we can see in the top left. Bacchus throws it into the air and it turns into a constellation. Another story is that this represents Ariadne herself, as although Bacchus was the God of Wine, and would live forever, Ariadne was a meer mortal and would eventually die, and this is what she would become.
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Heard in London