Scholarly interest in the NCMA’s Statue of Bacchus arose in the 1960s when classical art experts identified it as a patchwork, comprising a rare 2nd-century Roman torso, a head from a different ancient statue, and limbs, hair locks, berries, and leaves thought to have been put together in the late 16th or early 17th century. To display the rare torso by itself, scholars strongly advocated for the complete derestoration of Bacchus, which could not be accomplished at the time. The derestoration began in the mid–1980s with the removal of the head, with a second phase in 1990 to remove the berries, leaves, and locks of hair from it. The treatment, however, did not extend to the rest of the sculpture. The Bacchus Conservation Project was established in 2013 to study the sculpture, understand how it was put together, trace its history, and complete the derestoration begun decades ago. As part of the project, it was decided to make replicas of the antiquities (head and torso) and use the remaining marble limbs to recreate the statue. These other limbs were historically important, even if not ancient, and we wanted to keep them.
In 2018, the original derestoration project has made an about-face, based on compelling scientific, conservation, and curatorial data obtained during the extensive research process. Structural analysis of the statue indicated that once the torso was removed, the marble legs could not be used for a recreation—that recreation could collapse so we needed a different plan. We also discovered that most fragments came from quarries active during the Roman Empire. Tool marks and carving style indicated that they were not all carved in Antiquity (we already knew that); the non-ancient pieces were carved and attached at different points in time, from the 17th century onwards. In fact, the present iteration of the statue dates to the late 18th or 19th century (we did not expect that). Together, these various fragments create a wonderful statue of the Roman god of wine with a very complex and interesting history. The recent discoveries make the composite sculpture more interesting as a whole, even though there is still that rare 2nd-century Roman torso embedded in it.
Instead of a derestoration, the project became a re-restoration aimed at bringing Bacchus back to its original appearance. The sculpture was cleaned, consolidated, and the head—newly adorned with the old berries, leaves, and hair locks—was reattached to the body. The A new right arm (the original went, missing since before the statue came to the Museum but known to have been held aloft holding a bunch of grapes), was created by a local artist who used a 6’9” basketball player as a model (Bacchus is 6’8”!), and attached to the sculpture, following reversible conservation standards and procedures. Once again, the Statue of Bacchus is clearly identifiable as the Roman god of wine.