A young boy recoils in pain as his finger is bitten by a lizard, hidden among the fruit. A magnificent still life stands between him and us. The glass vase holds a rose and a sprig of jasmine, while red, succulent cherries lie beside the vase. Note the reflection of a room painted in the curving contour of the glass. It's most unusual for a late 16th-century painting to show a figure so realistically in a moment of action, and for a still life to be so prominent.
The subject of this painting may have an allegorical meaning, and possibly refers to the pain that can derive from love.
Miranda Hinkley: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio lived perhaps the darkest and most dangerous life of any of the great painters. He was notorious for brawling, and at the height of his fame killed a pimp, Ranuccio Tomassoni, and was forced to flee from Rome. The art critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon, puts this murder at the centre of his new biography of the artist, exploring how Caravaggio’s violent life fed into his work. He spoke to me about one of the most popular pictures by Caravaggio in the collection – ‘Boy bitten by a Lizard’.
Andrew Graham-Dixon: One of the documents I came across in the course of researching my biography of Caravaggio describes a man, very angry with another man, who’s his enemy, biting his finger at him. And what this symbolised was: ‘if I ever catch up with you late at night, I’ll get out my knife and I’ll emasculate you.’ It’s symbolic of castration, of injury to the sexual parts, and that language of the streets was something that Caravaggio also brought into painting. He famously put real people into paintings, posed them, painted them, and that’s what he’s done here, he’s taken a young model and posed him in his workshop. He’s painted him, it’s a picture painted for sale.
The scene draws on that language of popular vengeance or injury, in the sense that this young man has been enjoying apparently unalloyed, sensual pleasures, eating fruit, and he’s reached into this innocent looking collection of fruit and his finger’s been bitten by a lizard. I think one of the things that’s interesting about the picture is the flowers; there’s a jasmine and a rose, and the flowers symbolise love but more specifically they symbolise carnal love. Fillide Melandroni who was Caravaggio’s possibly favourite female model, probably his lover, possibly a whore for whom he pimped in his spare time, carries a jasmine at her breast in a famous portrait that sadly was destroyed in the Second World War.
So I think if you put that together with the boy’s suggestive undress, what Caravaggio’s suggesting – and remember, counter-reformation you have to be a bit careful about what you paint – that this boy has fallen victim to the blandishments of love and in the process has caught what in Italy they called the ‘French Disease’; in France they called the ‘Italian Disease’. The lizard that is biting his finger is a symbol of, as it were, the poison chalice of his lover who has given him the clap, which was a very common thing to get in Rome in the 16th century because… I shouldn’t laugh, it’s no laughing matter; Montaigne noted that very few women in Rome were not engaged in the oldest profession in the world and noted that in his day – he was writing just shortly before Caravaggio arrived in the city himself – a lot of the nobility were so fond of ogling the prostitutes as they stood at their balconies that they actually lopped the tops off their carriages. They created, as it were, the world’s first convertibles for the purpose of being able to look up at the ladies.
I mean, it’s a slight picture, it’s not one of Caravaggio’s greatest paintings. It’s painted for sale early on when he’s struggling, and according to his biographers pictures like this he struggled to sell; he was living in rags and not living very well. I think he ran a team of prostitutes. I can’t prove it for sure, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that that may have been what he was doing late at night. He was always out with his sword, he’s always in the company of prostitutes; it’s not a great stretch that, you know – it’s quite hard to get models – he paints them, looks after them, gets a bit of free sex on the side. His fight with Ranuccio Tomassoni – the man he kills… Ranuccio’s a pimp, Fillida was one of Ranuccio’s girls – I think maybe Caravaggio persuaded her to work for him. So this fight could be about that. It could be about Ranuccio’s wife, who Caravaggio may have had something with, or may have insulted. Caravaggio kills him with a sword blow to the groin. We know from a barber surgeon’s report that he bled to death from the femoral artery, so again, it’s a low blow. In boxing terms, it’s definitely below the belt. But this again suggests that Caravaggio was attempting to inflict a sexual wound. So again in a way we come back to that image of the man biting his finger at another man.
There’s an extraordinary legal document where it actually says ‘if I cut out your eye I’ve got to pay you £100, if I cut out both eyes I’ve got to pay you £500, if I cut off one of this chap’s testicles I’ve got to pay him £200, if I cut them both off I’ve got to pay £1,000’. The fact that the punishments were specified means that these things obviously went on, so I’m not being controversial for the sake of it, I think this is what actually happened. Sex was at the root of it with Caravaggio and Tomasoni; in a sense, everything that went wrong in his life stemmed from that moment... but what a great artist.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty Five, July 2010