Southern Baroque

Boy Bitten by a Lizard: Posner vs. Gilbert

About this time of year, several years ago, I was assigned my absolute favorite project in graduate school. I was required to read every single published work about one work of art, in order to trace the artwork’s historiography. I ultimately decided to research Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard (c. 1594).

Soon after I began to research my topic, I discovered that there are actually two versions of this painting – and both are attributed to Caravaggio. One version (shown left) hangs in the National Gallery in London, and the other (shown below, right) is in the Fondazione Roberto Longhi in Florence.  Several connoisseurs argued over the authenticity of the paintings during the 20th century, but that debate essentially ended in 1992 (when Denis Mahon asserted that both examples are original, although he thinks that the Florence version was painted several years earlier than the London version).1

The most interesting thing I learned from my research project, however, was that one single article can forever change the shape of discourse (for better or for worse). In 1971, Donald Posner wrote a seminal article on the homo-erotic nature of Caravaggio’s early paintings.2 Posner argued that Boy Bitten by a Lizard is one of the most pronounced homosexual characters painted by Caravaggio. He finds the boy in this painting to appear sensuous, androgynous, and seductive (as suggested by the off-the-shoulder robe). Since that 1971 article, just about everyone has latched onto this homo-erotic theory and it still remains (mostly) undisputed.

What is interesting to me, though, is that no one (not even Caravaggio’s contemporary biographers) ever mentioned anything about homosexuality or effeminate characteristics until 1971. If this was such a key part of Caravaggio’s work, why was it unmentioned (perhaps unnoticed?) for centuries? I think that “Posnerian” scholars have imposed a 20th century perspective on this painting, and we need to rethink some of the homo-erotic interpretations of Caravaggio’s work. Creighton Gilbert also has come to this conclusion, arguing that the fair appearance of youthful men, was long celebrated in society.3 Gilbert argues that it was only during the nineteenth century, with the rise of capitalism, that men no longer wanted to be considered beautiful. The life of the artistocrat was not considered a social ideal anymore, for it was replaced by work ethic. With this change, men (particularly those of the middle class) began to insist on their difference from women, which not only changed clothing, but also changed other social norms (such as men kissing or crying).

From a historical (and historiographic!) perspective, I think that Gilbert’s argument makes a lot of sense. I also like much of Gilbert’s argument that this painting has roots in classicism. Gilbert finds that Boy Bitten by a Lizard was inspired by a Latin poem which was popular during the time of Caravaggio: O treacherous boy, spare the lizard creeping toward you; it wants to die in your fingers. The elements in this painting point towards this poem, including the bare shoulder, which recalls classical antiquity (instead of homosexuality, as interpreted by Posner).

What do people think? What was your immediate reaction upon seeing this painting for the first time? (Did you think that the subject was “effeminate” or merely “classical”?) Are we so entrenched in homo-erotic theory that it is difficult to examine this painting in any other way?

P.S. This post was indirectly inspired by the ongoing contest at Three Pipe Problem. People can submit a limerick about Caravaggio in order to win a copy of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s new book, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. Last night I was thinking up words that rhymed with “lizard,” and decided I also better write a Boy Bitten by a Lizard post.

1 See Keith Christiansen and Denis Mahon, “Caravaggio’s Second Versions,” The Burlington Magazine 134, no. 1073 (August 1992): 502-04.

2 Donald Posner, “Caravaggio’s Homo-Erotic Early Works,” Art Quarterly 34 (1971): 301-324.

3 Creighton E. Gilbert, Caravaggio and His Two Cardinals (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).


Baroque Scrolls and Titian Fire Disaster

When I visited Europe several summers ago, there were a couple of things that inspired me to pick up a sketch pad. And I’m not really an artist, so when I’m motivated to draw (and put aside the impulse to self-criticize), I’ve gotta be pretty darn inspired. Santa Maria della Salute (Venice, 1631-1687, shown right) was one of the things that inspired me to draw for a bit. Really, it was the huge baroque scrolls along the drum of the dome that I sketched (click on the image to see the scrolls in better detail).  They are awesome, and I couldn’t help but think about the large volute scrolls that flank the top of some Greek vases (like this one).

Anyhow, tonight I read here that there was a fire in seminary building near Santa Maria della Salute. (When I read about the initial fire, I immediately gasped and thought, “Are the baroque scrolls alright?” But it seems like the fire was concentrated at the nearby seminary.  Perhaps firefighters doused the roof of Santa Maria della Salute to prevent the fire from spreading. Nonetheless, my scrolls were spared! Yay!) However, water did seep in through the roof of Santa Maria della Salute, which has permanently damaged Titian’s David and Goliath (1542-44, shown right). David and Goliath was hung on the ceiling of the church, and seemed to have received the brunt of the damage. There are eight other Titian paintings located in the church, but an initial examination suggests that no damage has been done.

That’s good news, but it’s sad to hear about the ruined work.  I actually gave an empathetic moan when I read a quote by Vittorio Sgarbi (head of Venice’s museum agency) on The History Blog, which has a great post about this unfortunate disaster. Sgarbi rushed to the museum scene after seeing the fire from a nearby restaurant. He then relayed to the press that he saw “water dripping from the painting for over an hour.”

Aw. Poor man. That definitely won’t be the highlight of his career.

Luckily for us, it sounds like this painting will be able to be restored.  I don’t know if the painting can ever be “good as new” (or, er, good as it was before this deluge), but at least this painting isn’t lost forever.


Painter + Sculptor Collaboration (and a Little about Luisa Roldán)

I thought I’d keep on the theme of polychrome sculpture this week, given my earlier post on painted classical sculpture.  Recently I’ve wondered whether classical artists would sculpt and paint their works, or if the work was divided between specialized painters and sculptors. Consequently, I began to think of polychrome baroque sculpture in Spain, Portugal, and Brazil; such sculpture is often painted (by a specialized painter) after the physical piece is created by a sculptor. (As a graduate student, my research on Brazilian art included the Passion sculptures at Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos (Congonhas do Campo), which were sculpted by Aleijadinho but later painted by Manoel da Costa Ataíde).

One striking example of painter and sculptor collaboration is St. Gines de la Jara (c. 1692, shown above). This work was sculpted by Spanish Baroque sculptor Luisa Roldán and then painted by Tomás de los Arcos (Roldán’s brother-in-law).  Arcos did an amazing job creating lifelike appearance of veins on St. Gines de la Jara’s hands, using a technique called “encarnacion.” The technique involves applying thin layers of glue and gesso.  Arcos then painted layers of beige and blue oil paint to suggest veins. (You can see a great detail of the veins and hand here. Also, you can learn more about this sculpture here, since it is the centerpiece of an ongoing Getty exhibition about Luisa Roldán.)

Does anyone know more information about the Spanish/Portuguese tradition of having painters and sculptors collaborate?  Off the top of my head, I would guess that this practice may have come out of the medieval tradition of wooden sculpture, but I couldn’t say for sure.  So much medieval sculpture was created by anonymous artists; it’s probably difficult (or perhaps impossible) to know if medieval painters and sculptors collaborated on three-dimensional work.  Perhaps medieval artists were trained to both paint and sculpt, and there was no need for collaboration?

On a side note, I’m glad that my friend Shelley recently introduced me to Luisa Roldán (who is affectionately nicknamed “La Roldana,” on the right is her presumed portrait by Antonio Rotondo, 1862).  I’d never even heard of La Roldana until a few weeks ago, but I immediately feel in love with her because 1) she’s a Baroque sculptor, 2) she’s Spanish (and Spanish sculpture often reminds me of the wooden baroque sculpture from Portugal and Brazil) and 3) she’s a woman.

Like many other female artists from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, Roldán’s father (Pedro Roldán) was also an artist. Roldán was an extremely successful artist (a great feat in the male-dominated profession) and worked as the court sculptor for Charles II.  (In fact, St. Gines de la Jara was probably a royal commission.)  Roldán was quite famous and successful during her lifetime, but seems to be relatively obscure today. Sigh – I wish she was discussed more in art history textbooks.


A Little Skepticism over Discoveries

My friends, we either live in a very fruitful time for artistic discoveries, or something is out-of-whack.  Has anyone paid attention to how many works of art that have been recently discovered?  Just within this past year, there have been several works of art (or art-related discoveries, like Caravaggio’s bones) that have been brought to public attention.  I’m sure that I haven’t posted about all of the discoveries made within these past few months, but here are a couple that I pulled out of my archives (noted with their post date, not the discovery date):

October 2009: “La Bella Principessa” attributed to Leonardo (via fingerprinting)
November 2009: Raphael Copy Discovered in Apartment
January 2010: Rembrandt Discovered in Bathroom Cabinet
May 2010: Possible Raphael Found in Modena
June 2010: Caravaggio Bones Discovered

And now, just as of this month, there are two more possible discoveries to include in the list.  The Vatican recently reported the possible discovery of a new Caravaggio painting, the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (see right).  I have to admit, I’m quite skeptical about this new “discovery.”  Although I haven’t seen the painting in person, some of the things look a little “off” to me.  I think the treatment of the blue drapery is a little unrefined, as well as the rendering of Lawrence’s left arm and right hand.  But who knows?  I could be wrong.  I’m a historian, not a connoisseur.  Maybe I’m just skeptical as to why the Vatican is announcing this timely “discovery” during the celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death.  It seems a little too convenient, and I wonder if people are getting too hyped-up over Caravaggio to think sensibly.
The other work of art recently “discovered” was found in the basement of Yale University Art Gallery (see left).  The Guardian reports that this battered canvas, which was located in the museum basement, has now been attributed to Velasquez.  The Prado Museum is reserving judgment on the painting, and I’m tending to do the same.  When I read that this painting was discovered in the museum basement, I sarcastically thought, “Of course.  Of course it was discovered in the basement.”  Maybe I’m too skeptical, but it seems like all museum directors would be interested in rummaging through their basement storage right now, ever since a possible Raphael was discovered in storage this past May.
What do other people think?  Are you beginning to get skeptical of these discoveries?  Or are you happy to embrace discoveries with open arms?  I sure like the idea of paintings being discovered, but starting to get a little wary…

Recovered Caravaggio is Probably a COPY!

Earlier this week I posted about a stolen Caravaggio painting, The Taking of Christ (“The Kiss of Judas”) that was recovered in Berlin (see above (and note damage incurred by theft!)). However, a lot of debate has occurred this week as to the authenticity of this painting, which originally was housed in the Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art (Ukraine).  As reported here, it is very likely that this this recovered “masterpiece” is actually a contemporary copy from the 17th century.  Experts argue that this copy was probably created 20 or 25 years after Caravaggio’s original painting of c. 1602.

In truth, the authenticity of the Odessa painting and another version of the painting (located in Dublin) has been disputed over the years.  At this point, most experts agree that the Dublin painting is an original work by Caravaggio.  In fact, the Odessa painting was only authenticated as recently as 2005 (it had long been considered a copy, but was authenticated while it was on exhibit in Spain).  In a twisted way, I guess it’s good that this Odessa painting was stolen: the events have afforded experts another chance to reexamine this work.  Although I haven’t examined the painting for myself, I have a feeling that this new (and not-so-new) opinion of the painting is correct.  I think that it’s a copy.  Although I don’t know the specifics regarding the 2005 authentication, it seems like someone (a Spaniard?) was a little too hasty and a little too determined to authenticate the Odessa painting.  And hey, I can’t blame that person too much.  I would want to authenticate and “discover” a work by Caravaggio, too.

Obviously, it’s hard for the Odessa museum to accept this new opinion.  No one wants to hear that their prized piece is no longer a masterpiece (and also not worth the previous estimated value of $100 million).  I guess that by now the thieves have heard this news, as well.  How ironic: they went through all of that trouble to steal a fake.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.