This impressive marble is based on a Roman bust of Dionysus from the late Hadrianic period (AD 117-138), now preserved in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. A copy after a fourth-century BC Greek original, the ancient marble was part of a group of sculptures donated by Pope Pius V to the Palazzo dei Conservatori in 1566. In 1797 it was handed over to the French under the terms of the Treaty of Tolentino; however, following the defeat of Napoleon, it was returned to Rome in 1816 and reinstalled in the Capitoline Museums.
The god of wine is depicted as a beautiful young man, wearing a fillet across his forehead, his luxuriant curls of hair crowned with vine leaves. His downcast gaze is fixed in a calm expression, and his youthful features are characterised by softly modelled cheeks, a straight nose and full lips. This arguably feminine representation of the god has resulted in the bust's former identification as a woman, usually a Bacchante or Ariadne. The legendary art historian J. J. Winckelmann (1717-1768) lauded its exuberant beauty in his writings, believing its subject to be the sea goddess Leucothea.
A faithful replica of the antique model, the present bust exhibits an astonishing refinement of carving, particularly in the virtuoso rendering of the hair, and the delicate handling of facial features. Its quality indicates the authorship of a highly skilled marble carver who may have been engaged in the restoration of antiquities in Rome. A similar level of technical accomplishment can be observed, for example, in the work of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (1716-1799). A version of the model sold at Christie's New York on 19 June 2020 (there erroneously identified as Melpomene), bearing Cavaceppi's signature, is comparable to the present marble in the shape of its truncation and design of the socle.