A Probable Literary Source

Caravaggio Blog

Whatever line I pursue, I continue to see images of the protagonist of my inquiry. First signs of paranoia? Need I start to worry?

An Etymological Dictionary

The Dizionario della lingua italiana is the most frequently consulted etymological dictionary available in the Italian language. Several times during my Royal Tennis in Renaissance Italy book research I had perused the alphabetical listings of surviving written records of terms associated with the game. The publication of this large-scale Dizionario is a pioneering enterprise which spans many decades. The long series of volumes has yet to be completed. It is one of the volumes, on the term ‘racchetta’, that produces a record of an Apollo and Hyacinth tennis account: Francesco Bracciolini’s Lo Scherno degli Dei (Mockery of the Gods) of 1618. It is commonly hailed as the first mock-heroic poem, but should actually be labelled under the sub-category; burlesque mythological. When reading Bracciolini’s tennis episode we are drawn into a world that is even more shadowy than Marino’s.

Reading poetry is part attitude, part technique. Curiosity is a useful attitude, particularly if it is free of preconceived ideas, so the ‘How to interpret poetry’ theories teach you. Effective technique directs your curiosity towards asking questions, drawing you into the poem. I fear I do not score high in the ‘free of preconceived ideas’ category, but this should not distract me. Let’s get drawn into Bracciolini’s Apollo and Hyacinth tennis match and find a place to begin, a basic idea of what the author has in mind, and then test my hypothesis.

Bracciolini’s Lo Scherno degli Dei (1618)

In Canto XIII of his Lo Scherno degli Dei, Bracciolini dedicates twenty stanzas (25-44) to the Apollo and ‘Iacinto’ tennis match. I am pleased to find that the actual Lo Scherno tennis description looks relatively straightforward, without such distractions as Marino’s combination of a discus and tennis match. While on a walk, apparently in contemporary Rome, Apollo and Hyacinth turn into a small street (a ‘vietta') and enter a building (a ‘gioco della corda’) to play tennis, where they are welcomed by the tennis professional ‘Mastro Beltramo’. The two having played vigorously for some time, Bracciolini describes the final stages (40-44) of the match as follows (click on Lo scherno degli dei di Francesco Bracciolini and you will access to the relevant Apollo and Hyacinth text from stanza 25): “Apollo prepares for the decisive stroke and the ball leaves his racket like a bullet. Hyacinth immediately collapses, then in agony moves his legs just once or twice, the spirit, caught in his body like in a ‘prigione’ (prison), is set free. Hyacinth’s beauty remains, also after death has set in. Apollo, dropping his ‘fulminante’ racket, runs towards him, and bends over compassionately, stupefied, not knowing what to say or do ...”.

Francesco Bracciolini, Bust in carved marble, by Giuliano Finelli, 1630-1631, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Disguised References to Caravaggio

When reviewing the text it strikes me how Bracciolini has Apollo and Hyacinth enter a small street and soon (“non molti passi al gioco della corda”) enter the tennis court. Possibly a disguised reference to Rome’s Via di Pallacorda, is my first hypothesis. In stanza 32 ‘Mastro Beltramo’ is introduced, the tennis professional who hands the two players the rackets they can use during play, a routine symptomatic of contemporary tennis play. It was not customary for the players to bring their own rackets to the court. Can ‘Beltramo’ perhaps be identified as the professional running the Via di Pallacorda court?

There are many more intriguing allusions, the first may refer to two versions of The Death of Hyacinth painting:

Bracciolini introduces the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis theme as follows: “Listen to this story, which is worth chronicling, so that the memory of the two terrible and irresponsible lovers is not extinguished. ‘La maestra Natura’, as a painter of “il bello”, had painted the beautiful Hyacinth before, very studiously. This should not be forgotten ...” (stanza 25). In stanza 27 Bracciolini describes a second painting with the same theme, in which the depiction of Hyacinth is improved: “The ‘maestra eccelente dipintora’ used these matters to do better than before by applying golden colours to paint his blond hair. And when painting his mouth, Nature had not used red colours, but coral ones just like in jewelry ...”.

The way Bracciolini describes the decisive stage of the match (st. 44), culminating in Hyacinth’s death, is just as extraordinary. Here it is: “He [Apollo] was already leaving, when worried to leave a ‘corpore delicti’ behind, and not willing to construct a defence and writs in court, he returns”. Then Apollo decides to run after all.

Then follows an episode that cannot be found in any other Apollo and Hyacinth account; Apollo flees from the site, most extraordinary for a god. While fleeing out into the countryside, he should not regard himself as safe (the narrator writes) and should beware of attacks from unexpected angles. When he visits an “osteria famosa e magna” he needs to watch out for hostile literary figures. Bracciolini refers to the conceited “fegatelli” (st. 49-2) that are chasing Apollo because of his behaviour. The term “sfida” (“challenge”) is quoted five times in stanzas 48-49, reflecting the best attitude towards these presumptuous figures.

Invitation to Present a Paper

My research at the Dutch Historical Institute (KNIR) in Rome in 2009 and early 2010 does not go unnoticed. Bert Treffers, author of several studies on Caravaggio and Baroque Art, is in charge of the institute’s art history department and invites me to present a paper with the results of my research into the Death of Hyacinth. Treffers is sceptical about some of the vital elements of my interpretations, but he regards the subject Caravaggio e la Sua Infausta Partita di Tennis (1606). Un’ Indagine intorno ad un Quadro Caravaggesco (Caravaggio’s Ill-Fated Tennis Match. Inquiry into a Caravaggesque Painting) as a fitting tribute to the 400th anniversary of the painter’s death in 2010, to be organized at the KNIR in Rome. I am quite honoured, but soon begin to feel a little apprehensive.

Three Principal Questions

While preparing the final version of my text I realize that I still have a lot of ground to cover. I have been wrong-footed on several occasions, and need to establish a stronger foothold before I can present a convincing case next May of my findings on what we may read into Bracciolini’s complex wordplay. This is an opportune time to seek guidance from an expert on the mock-heroic component of Bracciolini’s work, a scholar who can put all my premonitions of Lo Scherno’s disguised references to Caravaggio’s tennis match and his desperate flight under the microscope. These are my most pertinent questions:

How are we to interpret Apollo and Hyacinth being introduced as ‘irresponsible lovers’, an important matter to be recorded in the history books?

Should we identify Bracciolini’s two apparent Death of Hyacinth pictures as the paintings of our inquiry? And what are we to think of the painter: ‘maestra eccelente dipintora’?

How are we to understand Apollo leaving a crime scene and subsequently fleeing, fearing an arrest?