Boy Bitten by a Lizard (Caravaggio)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Boy Bitten by a Lizard (Ragazzo morso da un ramarro) is a painting by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio. It exists in two versions, both believed to be authentic, one in the Fondazione Roberto Longhi in Florence, the other in the National Gallery, London. Both are thought to date from the period 1594-1596, but given that it has all the signs of the early works painted in the household of Caravaggio's sophisticated patron Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, and that Caravaggio didn't enter the Cardinal's Palazzo Madama until some time in 1595, the later end of this period seems more likely. The differences between the two versions are infinitesimal.

The painting shows a boy starting back in pain and shock as his finger is unexpectedly nipped by a small lizard hidden in some fruit. The boy's face is a study in emotions, the fruit and a nearby vase of flowers form acutely observed still life studies. The image shows Caravaggio's trademark chiaroscuro and physical realism - the boy has the usual dirty fingernails. The painting also contains complex sexual symbolism, which would have been quite clear to educated audiences in Caravaggio's day: The bared shoulder and the rose behind the boy's ear indicate excessive vanity and a wish to be seen and admired, the cherries symbolize sexual lust, the third finger had the same meaning in the seventeenth century as it does today, and the lizard was a metaphor for the penis. The boy becomes aware, with a shock, of the pains of physical love.

As with all of Caravaggio's early output, much remains conjectural. The boy may be Mario Minniti, Caravaggio's companion and the model for several other paintings from the period - the bouffant dark curly hair and pursed lips look similar, but in other pictures such as Boy with a Basket of Fruit and The Fortune Teller Mario doesn't look so effeminate. The affected pose may have been the inevitable result of the experiment Caravaggio appears to have been undertaking here: observing and recording acute emotions - surprise and disgust - in a situation where real surprise was impossible and where the pose had to be held for a considerable period.

Critics of Caravaggio's insistence on painting only from life would later point out this limitation of his method: it lent itself to marvelously realistic (if theatrical) static compositions, but not to scenes involving movement and violence. It would only be in his late period, when he seems to have worked more from imagination, that Caravaggio would be able to completely overcome this problem. Nevertheless, Boy Bitten by a Lizard is an important work in the artist's early oeuvre precisely because it shows a way out from the airless stillness of very early works such as Boy Peeling a Fruit and Sick Bacchus, and even the implied violence but actual stasis of pieces such as Cardsharps.





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Boy Bitten by a Lizard (Caravaggio)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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