The Literary Expert's View

Caravaggio Blog

Maria Cristina Cabani, Professor of Italian Literature at Pisa University, is the ‘eroicomico’ expert I get in touch with. She has published on a variety of subjects related to the works of Ariosto and Tasso, and their contribution to the emergence of a new genre in Italian culture, the chivalric romance. Cabani is one of the few scholars to have dedicated a study to Bracciolini’s Apollo and Hyacinth tennis theme and to have compared the text with similar contemporary examples. No trace of a supposed hidden reference to Caravaggio in her writings on Lo Scherno. When I contact her, Cabani proves to be very much interested in my research and offers to help wherever she can. This is her (translated) response:

  1. As a general response to your views I can say that many of Bracciolini’s hidden references were intended as travesties of contemporary events that had caught the eye of his readers. Caravaggio and his rebellious nature may have been a tempting target for the poet. By the way, before you contacted me I was certainly not aware of the (possible) Caravaggio biography angles you are pursuing. Most intriguing. Let me give you my views of your hypotheses.
  2. It is indeed remarkable how, after the Lo Scherno’s pallacorda, match in which Apollo was involved, Bracciolini adds an account of the God on the run. Mainly because of the employment of the term ‘corpore delicti’, and other judicial terminology, which create the impression of a crime scene and a suspect who fears to have to face trial at a criminal court. Apollo’s subsequent flight is quite dishonourable for a god. These burlesque elements would fit ideally in Bracciolini’s Lo Scherno, as this work played with disguised references to contemporary reality. We sense that Bracciolini is aiming his arrows at a contemporary figure, but the poet draws a veil over his identity. The most tragic moment in Caravaggio’s life potentially provided a perfect opportunity to poke fun at the behaviour of a famous, recently deceased artist during a tennis match, an event probably still vivid in the mind of his readers. For Bracciolini the biographical context provided a new, exciting angle to the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis theme.
  3. I agree, another allusion to Caravaggio may be found in the build-up to the Apollo and Hyacinth match in stanza 32, when the two, apparently walking through contemporary Rome, turn into a ‘vietta’ (alley) and within a few steps enter the tennis court. It indeed very much resembles the Via di Pallacorda in which the tennis court where Caravaggio played his match was situated.

‘Mamma mia!’ Bracciolini incorporated contemporary events into his work, both to amaze and puzzle his reader. Full marks for a sophisticated piece of literary deception, the poet has certainly managed to put this modern reader off-balance, though only temporarily. I soon find other examples: In her essay on Bracciolini’s La Roccella Espugnata (Studi secenteschi 2003) Luisella Giachino underlines the poet’s formidable capacity to colour in real, recent events into the mythological stories he created, without the aid of a real literary precedent. For me the image of Caravaggio in Lo Scherno is no longer blurred, it is much clearer now, though not yet in Technicolor.....!

  1. To summarize: I find your hypotheses regarding a possible Caravaggio biographical connection in Lo Scherno’s Apollo and Hyacinth tennis theme more than convincing, and I support your interpretations. For a start the way in which Bracciolini introduces the Apollo and Hyacinth theme, a possible equivocation of the irresponsible behaviour of the people Caravaggio mixed with, which should be recorded in every (art) history book, reflected in the passage: “Listen to this story, which is worth chronicling, so that the memory of the two terrible and irresponsible lovers is not extinguished.” In the same stanza follows ‘La Maestra Natura’ who has painted Hyacinth, a better version created by “La maestra eccelente dipintora’ described two stanzas later. Whether Bracciolini indeed alludes to the two Death of Hyacinth paintings of your inquiry is shrouded in mystery, but it is worth noting that nowhere in his extensive work has the poet dedicated so much space to the creation of a work of art as the two Apollo and Hyacinth pictures.

I am thrilled with Cabani’s elaborate response. Nothing conclusive, I admit, but I now do get the impression that Bracciolini had the opportunity to study the two paintings carefully. How can this be explained? I am not aware of any contemporary paintings in which Hyacinth is so prominently portrayed, other than our two Death of Hyacinth pictures. It is impossible for me to compare Bracciolini’s description of Hyacinth’s golden hair and the coral toning of his mouth adequately with the Cherbourg and the Sotheby Death of Hyacinth paintings, both being in need of restoration.

  1. You need to proceed with caution, as one of Bracciolini’s main objectives was to confuse his readers and through his intricate wordplay to disguise the true nature of his satire. That Bracciolini was the only poet to add an Apollo on the run supports your theory. Anguillara, Marino, and his followers in their treatment of the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis match all left out a flight by Apollo. You may be aware of Bracciolini’s earlier treatment of the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis episode, in his L’Amaroso sdegno of 1597, here there is no flight by Apollo. I can now better appreciate what may have inspired the Lo Scherno Apollo and Hyacinth tennis account, including the precipitate flight from the scene; Caravaggio’s unfortunate tennis match of 1606.
  2. One final point. You correctly mention Apollo’s surprise visit to a ‘famosa osteria’ (stanza 49), carrying the ornate laurel wreath suspended over the entrance door. But have you checked how to interpret this famous ‘osteria’? In Bracciolini’s text it has the makings of an existing tavern, with all the details about its landlord and the low-life visitors. Is there any trace of Caravaggio visiting such a tavern when he was on the run after 1606? If so, this would undeniably support your interpretation.

How could I have missed it?! It is elaborated in all his biographies how Caravaggio paid a visit to a ‘famosa osteria’, in October 1609, when he was still in exile. The tavern was located in Cerriglio, Naples. Here the painter experienced the second most dramatic event of his life (the first being the tennis match brawl), when he was brutally assaulted by four unknown attackers and suffered serious head injuries. The incident at the ‘osteria’ where Bacchus reigned was recorded in all the news reports and caused quite a stir. The reputation of the Cerriglio tavern as a popular haunt for poets, artists, prostitutes and Spanish soldiers must have incited Bracciolini to include Apollo’s decision to pay the tavern a visit when he was on the run. Through a disguised reference to Caravaggio’s visit to the Cerriglio ‘osteria’ the poet is probably again discrediting the famous painter, who visited such a notorious place full of vagabonds and scoundrels while there was a price on his head. In ‘burlesco mitologico’ works it was not only the behaviour of mythological figures the poet aimed to satirize, but also that of contemporary figures who had caught the public eye.

There are no boxes to be ticked conclusively, but in the Lo Scherno tennis account section I now write the name of Caravaggio in pencil.

Dear follower, do you also detect an underlying, contemporary pattern in Bracciolini’s Apollo and Hyacinth tennis episode? My interpretations of a potential biographical Caravaggio context in Lo Scherno may be qualified as hypothetical, probable, plausible or even convincing, but not conclusive. I tend to follow Cabani’s evaluation of my assumption: “convincing”. What is your verdict? Feel free to add a motivation.