A Tennis-Related Emblem

Caravaggio Blog

Apart from the poets Marino and Bracciolini, there is another Umoristi academy member who tackled the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis theme. His textual source may be interpreted as another potential breakthrough in the intricate web of literary and visual sources I have been caught up in during my research. It concerns a book of emblems, entitled Teatro d’Imprese, which was dedicated to Maffeo Barberini. The author, Giovanni Ferro (1582-1630), had included a number of elements that in my view may well connect the treatise with the Death of Hyacinth painting. I hardly know where to start. First of all there is a ‘pictura’ of a racket and a tennis court in his collection of emblems, besides a brief description of the game and an account of how Apollo had accidentally killed Hyacinth in a tennis match. Ferro, in the introduction to his Teatro, indicates that it was in the year 1606 (!) that he started to compile his texts.

Giovanni Ferro dedicated his Teatro d’Imprese to Maffeo Barberini, on the eve of the cardinal’s election as Pope Urban VIII in 1623. The imprese or emblems used by Ferro were based on the Barberini symbol, the bee. The Teatro d’Imprese includes both a motto and an image of tennis (‘Racchetta’), which to Ferro was a game that reflected the virtues of the bee. The pictorial representation, the pictura, accompanying Ferro’s ‘racchetta’ motto is styled in the same way as most of the other 600 emblems he selected: a drawing inside a circle framed in a rectangular space. The picture shows the tiled floor of a tennis court, a racket with horizontal stringing, and a net across which a ball is struck. The ‘racchetta’ player directs the ball across the net towards his ‘compagno’. This has the effect of an arrow being catapulted, while every part of the body is in controlled motion, very much in the same style as Bracciolini had described the fatal blow of the ball. There is another intriguing reference in Ferro’s text that may be related to our Death painting: the special stringing device of the rackets.

The Racket’s Stringing Technique

The Teatro d’Imprese cites a certain Angelo Corsiniani as the expert for intertwining ‘corde’and ‘nervi’ in the stringing of rackets. Corsiniani was virtually forgotten by his contemporaries, Ferro points out, but had been responsible for ‘posting’ the ‘racchetta’ impresa because of his reputation as a racket stringer with a unique pattern. As my friend Theo Bollerman indicated to me recently, close inspection of the Death of Hyacinth shows that the rackets are strung with a special technique, an intricate interlacing of the strings that must have been experienced as revolutionary by contemporary players. When I try to figure out how his device worked I am thinking of two sets of strings one for the vertical, the other for the horizontal strings, which seem thicker (perhaps made of silk). But there is more to it, my analysis of the Death of Hyacinth bottom racket establishes that the strings do not weave the cross strings, they seem to rest on them. I can imagine that strings subsequently slide back and forth when a ball comes off them. No wonder that Ferro described the balls as being catapulted from the strings of the racket that Apollo was using, one of them hitting Hyacinth fatally on the temple.

Stringing Pattern in The Death

Is it not extraordinary to see the Teatro d’Imprese’s special ‘racchetta’ stringing device apparently mirrored in The Death? The pattern is detectable in the top part of Hyacinth’s racket, particularly in the way the horizontal cords are strung. The two rackets in our portrait feature one of the few examples of early seventeenth-century rackets showing horizontal, rather than diagonal stringing. What had sparked Corsiniani’s invention of the unique stringing devise? It must have been because competition in Baroque Italy in this sport was keen, very much like in modern tennis. Every player was looking for the edge to defeat his opponent. When thinking this over I am reminded of the professional tennis players in the late 1970s who resorted to the controversial ‘spaghetti stringing’. It was in May 1977 that the 40-year-old Australian Barry Phillips-Moore, well past his prime, reached the round of the last 16 at the Belgian Tennis Open. It was commonly acknowledged that his achievement was not based on his skills, but on the innovative ‘spaghetti stringing’ design his racket had been equipped with. With fewer cross strings, the main strings held the ball longer, allowing the player to impart more spin.

Portrait of Carlo Barberini with a racket and a ball, by Santi di Tito, 1580-1585, Barberini Collection.

The Barberini’s Passion for Tennis

The art historian Sebastian Schütze recently argued that the emblems incorporated in Ferro’s Teatro d’Imprese represent the ideal image of all the projects the Barberini had in mind. The Barberini’s passion for tennis is firmly rooted. Carlo and his younger brother Nicoló being depicted with a racket and a ball as young boys in the 1580s. It is thus possible to interpret the choice for the Racchettaemblem in Ferro’s collection as a clue that tennis was an inherent part of the Barberini iconography, including the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis theme. This included the construction of a tennis court at the Palazzo Barberini that was to be built in Rome from 1625 onwards. To enhance the status of the new tennis court, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was commissioned to create marble, blown-up versions of tennis balls, placed on walnut pedestals, which would guide the players through the palace gardens to the court. The court was to outshine all the other pallacorda courts that were linked to palaces in Rome.

Portrait of Maffeo Barberini, c. 1598, Caravaggio (Wikipedia)

The connection with the figure to whom Ferro’s Teatro d’Imprese was dedicated, Maffeo Barberini, as bearer of the tennis emblem, and the production of the Death of Hyacinth becomes particularly tempting. Francesco Bracciolini and Giovanni Ferro, both temporarily employed by Maffeo Barberini, must have been in touch, and Ferro may have informed Bracciolini of his Apollo and Hyacinth tennis emblem. A commission of the Death of Hyacinth painting by Maffeo Barberini would be obvious, but perusal of Marilyn Aronberg Lavin’s Seventeenth-Century Barberini Documents and Inventories of Art (1975) establishes that no painting showing two ancient figures with tennis rackets has come to light in the Barberini archives.

Links with Carlo de’ Medici

Bracciolini and Ferro prove to have possessed another mutual patron, Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici (1595-1666). It was to this young prince that Bracciolini dedicated the first edition of his Lo Scherno degli Dei in 1618. Ferro in a sequel to his Teatro d’Imprese, entitled Ombre apparenti nel Teatro d’Imprese (1629), in a section entitled ‘Palla’, points out how he once presented the young Medici cardinal with a ball as a metaphor for a perfectly spherical object which resembles the ‘mappamondo’ (globe) where we all live. Ferro writes that the shape of the ball reflects Horace’s ‘Totus teres, atque rotundus’ (all smooth and rounded) shape of the earth. The ‘palla’ symbolizes true obedience and exemplifies the virtue of good government. It is therefore, Ferro reasons, that the ball was incorporated into the Medici coat of arms. In 1610, for the canonisation of San Carlo Borromeo, Ferro writes in his Ombre apparenti that he also used the emblem of the ball for this relative of the Medici family, claiming that through its true bounce and volatile flight through the air, the ‘palla’ possessed all the heroic qualities San Carlo had demonstrated throughout his life.

Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici (1595-1666), Portrait by Justus Sustermans (Wikipedia)

It was in 1615 that Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici moved from Florence to settle in Rome’s Palazzo Firenze, separated from the tennis court on which in 1606 Caravaggio had played his tennis match by only a narrow street, Via di Pallacorda, named after the tennis court. We may wonder if this may have played a part in Bracciolini’s mind when he apparently incorporated allusions to Caravaggio’s tennis match in his Lo Scherno degli Dei, the first edition of which in 1618 was dedicated to the young Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici. Carlo was a keen player as well as an extravagant betting man. According to a French study, ‘Fêtes romaines au temps des Carrache’, Carlo lost 6,000 ‘écus romains’ during a pallacorda match at the Palazzo Farnese tennis court in 1624. The Farnese court has retained its original exterior structure – as the only of at least 30 Baroque Pallacorda courts in Rome - its interior is at present used as a viewing theatre.

Palazzo Farnese’s late 16th century tennis court.