At Alberti's Window, Monica Bowen posted a remarkable summary of the curious portrait known as Boy bitten by a lizard. Her fascinating post explores some of the leading theories on the painting, and whether inferences made about Caravaggio's homosexuality are evident in the work.
To quote art critic and documentarian Waldemar Januszczak, the topic of Caravaggio's homosexuality is a "wasp's nest" - best left alone. It is definitely one of the most contentious issues surrounding Caravaggio - particularly when discussing him on Italian shores.
Caravaggio's decadent Bacchus seems to have the jitters
However, it is interesting to at least know where scholars conjured this reading from. In this instance, it is related not only to the effeminately attired young boy in the painting, but the particular finger being bitten.Dubbed digitus impudicus by the Romans, the middle finger is omnipresent in western history as an insulting gesture, loaded with sexual connotations. An interesting article written by an esteemed Law Professor Ira P. Robbins gives further insight into the origins and meanings of this gesture. pdf link
The following clip is a snippet from the amazing Every Picture Tells A Story series presented by Waldemar Januszczak. In this episode, he explores Caravaggio's inspiration for the symbols in the painting, drawing on both classical and Biblical sources. If you enjoyed this clip, I definitely recommend tracking down the rest of this episode, and the series - which is directly available from ZCZ Films.
I personally enjoy these earlier works of Caravaggio's. They are playful and have that intoxicating mixture of antiquity and the contemporary world they were created for. Considering the heavier, spiritual and morbid themes of Caravaggio's later life and work, I am glad some of these earlier works survive.
Talismanic hand gesture
One thing that is often overlooked is the boy's hand position is evoking a gesture commonly used in the Mediterranean. The modern meaning is analogous to what we associate to the middle finger today, but the hand position is identical to the way it is depicted in the painting. Older generations however used this gesture to ward off evil eye.
In this instance, the painting can be read as a totem of good fortune, just like the evil eye charms you commonly see in the Southern Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. The lizard in this scenario becomes the biting gossip and envy that is seen as the cause of evil eye. Hence, being vain or showy like the young boy/bacchic figure depicted acts a warning, encouraging temperance at this level of interpretation as well.
In researching digitus impudicus, I was delighted to see the evil eye reference mentioned. Talismanic items to ward off evil eye are depictions of eyes often made of blue (or green) glass or beads. For a wonderful article on evil eye in antiquity - please read Happiness lives here - Fascinated by the evil eye at Vicki Leon's blog.
Nazar or gözdaşi ('eye stones') are evil eye talismans commonly seen in Turkey, Cyprus and the Middle East
What was interesting to read was that in antiquity, particularly in Rome, phallic charms were used to ward of this evil eye - this symbol evolved into a modern form we are familiar with, and that is still worn by many Christians and Catholics - the Cornicello (little horn)
The modern cornicello has religious connotations(associated with warding off the devil), though has its origins in Pagan evil eye superstitions
We know that Mario Minniti was with Caravaggio at the time, and some argue is the model in the painting. As a Sicilian, this gesture would have been well known to him in particular - as this gesture and the evil eye tradition was, and still is quite strong in the southern parts of Italy.
This has also reminded me of a related hand gesture, the sign of the horns, which has been popularised by musicians in the modern era - but was first used by Ronnie James Dio, member of the pioneering rock/metal group Black Sabbath. He has been interviewed about it many times, and states that it was commonly used by his Italian family members, particularly his grandmother who was originally from Sicily. Italians call this symbol corni (horns) or maloi/malocchio - which itself means 'evil eye'.
clip from Eddie Trunk's metal show via youtube user metalstygian
If anyone is aware of further scholarship on Boy Bitten by A Lizard that describes it as a talismanic work evoking the Mediterranean evil eye suspicion, please let me know.