The thorn extractor (Italian: Spinario) is an ancient motif in the fine arts, especially sculpture. It is a naked boy pulling a thorn out of his left foot.
The thorn extractor sits on a boulder with his left leg bent over his right thigh. With the left hand he holds the instep of the left foot, with the right he pulls an invisible thorn out of the sole of the foot. The head is tilted over the foot. The hair is finely coiffed and falls in strands to either side.
The so-called “Capitoline thorn extractor”, the most famous version, is in the Conservatorial Palace in Rome. It is made of bronze and is 73 cm high without the plinth. It is probably one of the few ancient statues that was always visibly placed above ground. This is indicated by its detailed mention as simulacrum valde ridiculosum, quod priapum dicunt (“a most ridiculous statue called Priap”) in the 12th century manuscript De Mirabilibus Urbis Romae (“On Miraculous Things of the City of Rome”) by Magister Gregorius. In 1471, the thorn extractor was bequeathed to the city of Rome by Pope Sixtus IV and publicly displayed on the Capitol alongside a number of other ancient bronze figures. For a long time, the “Capitoline thorn extractor” was thought to be an original from the 5th century BC and was sometimes attributed to Lysipp, the court sculptor of Alexander the Great. Because the head of the thorn extractor was apparently taken from a statue in an upright posture and the fall of the curls does not follow the inclined head posture, it has been concluded that the “Capitoline thorn extractor” is a re-stylization in the style of classicism after late Hellenistic models. The right arm was cast and applied separately.
A marble figure excavated on the Esquiline in 1874, called the “thorn extractor Castellani”, is in the British Museum in London. It is 73 cm high and is a late Hellenistic influenced Roman copy from the 1st century AD, created after a Greek original from the 3rd century BC. Two drilled holes indicate that the “thorn extractor Castellani” once served as a fountain decoration. His right lower leg has been broken off.
Mythological interpretations saw in the thorn puller Lokros, the son of Zeus and Maira (daughter of Proitos). In Greek mythology, Lokros is the ancestor of the Ozolic Lokrians, who, according to legend, injured his foot and subsequently recognized the fulfillment of a prophecy and became the founder of a city.
In the Middle Ages, the thorn was seen as a symbol of original sin; the thorn puller was interpreted as a sinner who had strayed from the right path. In this context, the motif was widely used on capitals, facades, city gates and also on tombs
At the beginning of the early Renaissance, the thorn extractor was taken up again by Filippo Brunelleschi when he used it as a model for a figure on the bronze doors during the renovation of the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence around 1402. The painter Luca Signorelli used the thorn extractor as a pictorial motif in the background of his representations of Mary with the Child in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and the Baptism of Christ in the collegiate church of San Medardo in Arcevia as well as in the fragment of an altar centrepiece from Sant’Agostino in Siena.
Heinrich von Kleist mentions the thorn puller in his essay On the Marionette Theatre, the subject of which is the influence of human consciousness on natural grace. The narrator speaks of a young man about whose education a wonderful grace was then diffused. When a graceful, unconscious movement reminds him of the “youth […] pulling a splinter out of his foot, he tries to repeat it consciously , but the attempt, as could easily have been foreseen, failed. He lifted his foot in confusion for the third and fourth time, he lifted it probably ten more times: in vain! he was unable to produce the same movement again […]”.
Adolph Menzel made four sketches of the Spinario Castellani when it was exhibited in Berlin.
Gustav Eberlein’s marble statue of 1886 combines the thorn extractor with the Bacchus motif; it was awarded the Golden Medal and purchased by the Berlin National Gallery the following year.
In Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice, Gustav von Aschenbach compares Tadzio to the thorn puller. (Cf.: “One had been careful not to put the scissors to his beautiful hair; like the thorn puller, it curled into the forehead, over the ears, and deeper still into the nape of the neck.”)
In Heinrich Böll’s story Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa... the thorn extractor is listed, among other things, alongside the Parthenon frieze as a classic prop of a humanist grammar school. In Ferdinand von Schirach’s story The Thorn from the Crime Collection, the museum guard Feldmayer loses his mind because he cannot answer the question of whether the boy has found the thorn. The search in the foot remains unsuccessful even with the magnifying glass; it seems increasingly unclear to Feldmayer whether the boy was able to grasp the thorn at all, and if he did, whether he had perhaps already dropped it.
- Werner Fuchs: Der Dornauszieher (Opus Nobile 8), Dorn Verlag, Bremen 1958.
- ders.: Die Skulptur der Griechen, Hirmer, Munich 3rd ed. 1983. ISBN 3-7774-3460-4. pp. 284-287.
– Album with pictures, videos and audio files
- Thorn extractor ‘Castellani’ in the Virtual Museum of Antiquities Göttingen
- Heinrich von Kleist: The Thorn Pulleron YouTube in Austrian Sign Language from About the Marionette Theatre, a production of ARBOS – Society for Music and Theatre
- Entries for Thorn extractor in the archaeological database Arachne
- Quoted from: Werner Fuchs: Der Dornauszieher. Opus Nobile 8, Dorn Verlag, Bremen 1958, p. 4
- Werner Fuchs: Die Skulptur der Griechen, 1983, p. 286.
- Luca Signorelli e Roma. Exhibition catalogue, Rome 2019.
- About the puppet theatre on Wikisource
- Eberlein, thorn extractor Image index of art and architecture, retrieved 5 January 2016.