A photograph capturing that moment when everything can change suddenly
While “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” is not one of Caravaggio’s most famous works, it is certainly one of the most interesting. For the first time, a fleeting emotion of the moment is represented, much like a photograph taken suddenly, capturing that unrepeatable instant between surprise and pain. There are two versions of the work, one from the V. Korda Collection, held at the National Gallery in London and the other in Florence, at the Longhi Foundation. It was the art critic Roberto Longhi, in the 1940s, who raised Caravaggio from the oblivion in which he had already fallen in the 1600s.
Analysis of the work
Giovanni Baglione – a contemporary of Caravaggio and a rather mediocre painter who had written the biographies of Roman artists of that last century – discussed this work. Baglione certainly was not on good terms with Caravaggio. He criticized his style, even if he had at times imitated him and had even sued him for certain vulgar verses that had offended him and which he believed had come from Caravaggio. However, implicitly recognizing the value of the painting he had written “… he seemed to actually shake his head”.
The theme itself could be considered trivial. A boy is bitten by a lizard, but the way in which the theme is represented is extraordinary. The reptile that triggers the action by sinking the teeth in the young man’s finger is immediately noticed – it is in the shadows, a darker part of the work. What is striking, however, is the boy’s reaction. As in a still image, the young man is caught in the exact instant in which the body jumps back from sudden pain and leans forward towards the observer. The right hand suddenly retracts and pulls the whole arm with it, bringing the shoulder close to the body, in a sudden flicker that makes the shoulder position unnatural. The fingers are contracted by the pain, as if an excess of energy – a “shock” had passed through the nerve endings of the hands. The face is extraordinary, something that had never been seen before. His forehead is frowned in pain and surprise, while a silent cry comes out of the barely opened mouth. Moreover, the eyes are the truly remarkable, they reveal an expression between suffering and surprise, but also the wonder of having been “discovered”. In fact, the event is not private, the boy is aware of being observed and in fact looks towards us as if we had treacherously entered the room and caught him jolting back.
History of an iconography
The painting must have seen good fortune, because there are several repetitions from artists during the same time period, although the theme was not a something entirely new. In fact, there is a precedent: the work a Cremonese painter, Sofonisba Anguissola, held in the Capodimonte museum in Naples, Italy. This piece is the Child bitten by a shrimp, completed in around 1555, that depicts a baby crying out after being bitten, and being cared for by a young girl. Caravaggio had certainly seen the drawing. However, his interpretation offers more dramatization, transforming the child’s naive crying into a movement of horror. Moreover, in Sofonisba’s work, the cry seems to last forever, while Caravaggio represents the moment of the bite and, at the same time, gives greater complexity to the expression because surprise is added to the pain.
There is little doubt that both works show a common direction, which is that of a representation in which external realities and moods come together. The matrix is the physiognomic studies of Leonardo, as the head of the screaming man (1503-1505), preparatory drawing for the Battle of Anghiari, which is the beginning of the vein of the face deformed by the cry that runs through the whole history of art. We will find it again in The Scream by Munch (1893), and again in the expressionist painting of the early 1900s, to finally reach the screaming mouths of Francis Bacon as in Pope III, of 1951, which is the “remake” of the Portrait of Innocent X of Velázquez of 1650. Even cinema is not exempt from these inputs – just think of the famous scene of Ejzenštejn’s film of 1925, the Corazzata Pötemkin, with the cry of the nanny as the wheelchair rolls down the stairs.
Historical and artistic context
Mancini, an art collector who had written at the beginning of 1600s “Considerations on painting”, includes the painting among Caravaggio’s early works dating back to the period when the artist, who had come from Lombardy, had been living in Rome for a few years. In the city of the Popes, after an unhappy period at the Cavalier D’Arpino’s workshop, Caravaggio had begun to make himself known and obtain high-ranking patrons, such as Cardinal Del Monte, a sophisticated man, leader in Roman politics, and very close to Pope Clement VIII. The artist was also close to wealthy banker Vincenzo Giustiniani. Important clients who, in addition to assuring him a certain economic stability, sometimes guided him in the choice of subjects. In fact, Caravaggio likely had access in Del Monte’s home to Leonardo’s Book of Painting, owned by the cardinal’s brother where there were studies on the “motions of the soul” that the great Florentine had led.
However, the knowledge of Leonardo, who had lived in Milan for a long period of time, could date back to the years of apprenticeship in Lombardy. It is certain that it was in Rome, in the 1490s, that he would paint various works where extreme states of mind were depicted.
Anna Maria Calabretta