Caravaggio Blog

An Inquiry into a Painting

Some paintings captivate you when you stand close, others if you are at a greater distance. You may have walked past the picture time and again, studied it painstakingly, so aware of its impact, so difficult to pinpoint what it is. It creeps under your skin, gradually. A long silence ...., then the pull of the trigger, the moment is there….!

1. Introduction

Since 2005 I have been engaged in research into a mysterious painting entitled The Death of Hyacinth, which shows two semi-nude figures, the God Apollo and his male lover Hyacinth, and two rackets. The portrait has remarkably failed to inspire art historians into research.

The picture is bound to confuse the viewer, just look at it. The representation is so disconcerting, flagrantly anachronistic, it seems. Certainly, there is no way that these two men from Antiquity could have been playing an actual game of tennis!

The following text from an exhibition catalogue indirectly sparked off the true story told in this blog: “If we were to reconstruct the history of Caravaggio’s final years, as this exhibition is entitled, merely on a chronological basis, or as a succession of events, we would have to start from 28 May 1606, when the painter inflicted a wound on Ranuccio Tomassoni during an altercation in Campo Marzio (also apparently sustaining injury himself) and was obliged to flee Rome” Ferdinando Bologna, Caravaggio: The Final Years, Exhibition Catalogue, 2005


Revolutionary in his own time, notorious for his sexually provocative art, after the 1606 incident Caravaggio (1571-1610) became increasingly associated with his darker side, with macabre themes such as decapitations and flagellations. The Caravaggio: The Final Years exhibition aimed to mirror this dark period. In London’s National Gallery, sixteen of Caravaggio’s works from 1606-1610 were installed inside darkened rooms, with spotlights, as if his paintings needed even more melodrama. While going from one painting to the next, each picture comes as a sudden jolt for the visitor. It is as if he is in a cinema watching a horror film. What happened on 28 May 1606 exactly that turned Caravaggio’s life into a nightmare?

The Tennis Match

To start off with a matter of consequence: one essential element in the brief catalogue introduction above is missing and needs to be clarified: Ranuccio Tomassoni was not just injured on 28 May 1606, he died as a result of the wound Caravaggio had inflicted. Besides, the altercation followed a tennis match that the two protagonists had been involved in! It is by this event, the most tormenting in the painter’s life, that, in my view, the production of the painting of our inquiry, The Death of Hyacinth, was inspired. It had been this fatal incident that ignited Caravaggio’s dark, final years, when his art became profoundly macabre. His works between 1606-1610 reflect the painter’s state of mind as a man with a price on his head. Solving the hidden identity of The Death of Hyacinth is going to be a complex matter; who commissioned it and why, and who painted it? Surely an intricate web that needs to be untangled. The painting was probably made relatively soon after Caravaggio’s premature death in 1610.

The Death of Hyacinth Painting

The first time I saw an image of the painting of our inquiry was when I was doing research on the role tennis (pallacorda) played in Italy, which eventually culminated in the publication of Royal Tennis in Renaissance Italy (Brepols) in 2006. A black-and-white photograph of the painting, entitled La Mort d’Hyacinthe (The Death of Hyacinth), was included in a French essay which addressed the antique heritage of ball games. Towards the end of the text I came across the painting, made in the so-called caravaggesque style, which was preserved in a museum in Cherbourg, France. I was struck by the two rackets I could detect in the dark image of the picture. Is it true what my gut feeling tells me, was the painting’s theme indeed sparked by the most famous match in tennis history? It caused quite a stir in Rome in 1606. A Google search on ‘Caravaggio’ and ‘tennis match’ produces over 180,000 hits.

What has happened to warrant the profound emotional dynamism displayed in The Death? After some nine years of research I am beginning to detect a beacon of light at the end of the tunnel. Besides, an increasing number of Caravaggio scholars that I contact for their opinion tend to support my interpretation that the production of the Death of Hyacinth was sparked by Caravaggio’s 1606 tennis match. I am starting to feel slightly uncomfortable. Help, I don’t want my quest to end ….!