In the center panel, the Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne depicts a both riotous and classically restrained procession which ferries Bacchus and Ariadne to their lovers' bed. Here, the underlying myth is that Bacchus, the god of wine, had gained the love of the abandoned princess, Ariadne. In the Republican and Imperial Roman era, triumphs were parades by victorious leaders, wherein a laureled-crowned imperator was led by a white chariot led by two white horses. The two lovers are led by chariots drawn by tigers and a parade of nymphs, bacchanti, and trumpeting satyrs. At the fore, Bacchus' friend, the paunchy, ugly, and leering drunk Silenus, rides an ass. The figures carefully cavort in order to hide most naked male genitals. The program may refer to Ovid's Metamorphosis (VIII; lines 160-182) or a trifling carnival song-poem written by Lorenzo de Medici in about 1475, that entreats:
|Quest’è Bacco ed Arïanna,||Here are Bacchus and Ariadne,|
|belli, e l’un de l’altro ardenti:||Handsome, and burning for each other:|
|perché ’l tempo fugge e inganna,||Because time flees and fools,|
|sempre insieme stan contenti.||They stay together always content.|
|Queste ninfe ed altre genti||These nymphs and other gents|
|sono allegre tuttavia.||Are ever full of joy.|
|Chi vuol esser lieto, sia:||Let those who wish to be happy, be:|
|di doman non c’è certezza.||Of tomorrow, we have no certainty.|
The painter's cousin Ludovico Carracci engraved uncensored versions in prints of the scenes. Also in contrast to the ceiling's intimation rather than outright depiction of mythological lovemaking are erotic engravings by the painter's brother Agostino - the I Modi.
Carracci, in his day, was seen as one of the painters that revived the classical style. Rebellious artists such as Caravaggio and his followers would in few years abandon the sunny background, and the representation of mythology in their art. But it would be inappropriate to view Carracci as solely the continuation of an inherited tradition; in his day, his vigorous and dynamic style, and that of his trainees, changed the pre-eminent aesthetic of Rome. His work would have been seen as liberating for artists of his day, touching on pagan themes with an unconstrained joy. It could be said that while Mannerism had mastered the art of formal strained contraposto and contorsion; Carracci had depicted dance and joy.
Neoclassic formalism and severity frowned on the excesses of Carracci; but in his day, he would have been seen as masterful, as the supreme approximation to classic beauty. Carracci painted in the tradition of Raphael and Giulio Romano's secular Galatea frescoes in the Loggia of the Villa Farnesina Unlike Raphael though, they display a Michelangelo-esque muscularity, and depart from the often emotionless visages of High Renaissance painting. Finally, it has been said that Carracci and his school blended Venetian colorism with the Florentine-Umbrian attention to drawing and design; yet this is best seen in the oil canvases rather than frescoes in the Farnese, which required for Carracci and intensive degree of drawn preplaning and attention, much of which still exists.
Thomas Hoving, later director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote his PhD on the cycle, pointing out many correspondences between the frescoes and items in the famous Farnese collection of Roman sculpture, much of which was then housed in the gallery (it is now in Naples, mostly in the Museo di Capodimonte). His suggestion that many details of the fresoes were designed to compliment the marbles below has been generally accepted.