A Pivotal Archival Document

Caravaggio Blog

From 11 February - 15 May 2011 Rome’s Archivio di Stato hosts the exhibition Caravaggio a Roma. Una Vita dal vero (Caravaggio in Rome, A Documented Life) revealing the numerous vicissitudes of Caravaggio’s life and aspects regarding the cultural and artistic circles he frequented during the time he lived in Rome (c. 1593-1606). A group of art historians, paleographers and archivists analyzed a wide range of documents preserved in the Archivio di Stato, exploring documents stored in over sixty kilometres of shelves. It is in early May that I receive a telephone call from Rome from my dear friend Susanne, who tells me that she is inside the Archivio di Stato visiting the Caravaggio a Romaexhibition. She is excited: “You won’t believe this, but I need to tell you that according to posters displayed throughout the city to promote the exhibition, there is a clear question mark as to whether there was indeed a tennis match. I gather that one of the contributors to the exhibition’s catalogue focuses on Caravaggio’s murder and his flight. How is this possible, are you really sure about the tennis match?” My curiosity is aroused, my adrenalin surging. Take it easy, get access to the full essay text first, after which I will summon the firing squad.

The Via di Pallacorda Tennis Court

My spadework into the notary acts (Trenta Notai Capitolini) in Rome’s Archivio Storico Capitolino and Archivio di Stato has at last produced a hit, a discovery potentially as crucial as the detection of a fingerprint at the crime scene for the investigating detective. It concerns a substantial busta containing a bundle of unpaginated documents all directly or indirectly related to the pallacorda building in Rome’s Via di Pallacorda. Surprisingly, the tennis court’s history is completely unexplored territory by Caravaggio scholars. The busta contains notary acts, contracts and subsequent accounts of repairs carried out in the tennis court, in total almost one hundred documents crammed into the parchment busta, kept together by two frayed pieces of cord. Sorry to keep the exact archival reference close to my chest, for the time being (an elaborate, annotated version will be published soon in an Italian art journal). The central section on the first page I open seems to crumble away under my fingers, just where I detect some vital text. My fingers tremble whenever I turn a page to reveal what secrets are buried on the next one. I soon come to realize what a treasure trove I have unearthed, with texts in Italian as well as printed infrascript Summarium accounts providing a more or less chronological overview in Latin of the tennis court’s building and social history. One of the first descriptions that strikes me reads “locum circumcirca muratum e copertum ad usum ludi pilae, in regione Campi Martii è conspectu Palatii vulgariter nuncupati de Medici”: which translated means, ‘a structure enclosed by four walls, and covered for the practice of the ball game, located in Campo Marzio, adjacent to the Palace that is commonly known as ‘de’ Medici’.

First part of the Summarium text about the Pallacorda of our inquiry.

The Tennis Court Owners

It was in August 1582 that a lawyer specialized in canon and civic law, and the family’s pater familias, settled in Rome in the (now) Via di Pallacorda, in the Campo Marzio rione. His name was Claudio Neri (c. 1536-1596). The deed of sale states that Claudio had purchased an apparently still underdeveloped property, a site that included a fountain in a courtyard. Campo Marzio was considered one of the most attractive rione of Rome, and in Caravaggio’s time attracted a great number of foreigners. Claudio, until his premature death in 1595-1596, along with his two sons Francesco and Alessandro, became strongly rooted in papal Rome’s civic society. It is in 1604 that we find the first documentary evidence that Neri’s family owned a tennis court in the Via di Pallacorda, a building that was used as the dowry required when one of Claudio’s four daughters married a certain Gabriele Cremona in the same year 1604. The value of the dowry, and therefore of the tennis court, was estimated at 4,200 scudi. This financial construction made the Pallacorda virtually a family project. The archival document also mentions the tennis court’s characteristic elements: it featured two plain walls (‘muraglie nude’) and penthouses (‘tavole’) that enclosed two of the other walls of the court. The Pallacorda included a tiled floor (‘pavimento’), and high windows to allow in crucial daylight.

Plan showing Palazzo Firenze, in between Via di Pallacorda and Vicolo del Divino, where Caravaggio lived in 1604. The former tennis court can be recognized in No. 300 when it had become a theatre.

According to the 1604 notary act, the Neri family property was located ‘alla Catena de’ Medici’, i.e. a gate of admission in a vicolo (alley) that gave access to Palazzo Firenze, the residence of the Medici Ambassador to Rome. This vicolo, a private street at the time, later became Via di Pallacorda. The Medici palace is mentioned in virtually all the contemporary reports of Ranuccio Tomassoni’s death at the hands of Caravaggio, as it was on a court close to Palazzo Firenze that the ill-fated match was played. The archival document under review, so far unrecorded in Caravaggio studies, shows that the Pallacorda was not connected with the Medici palace, but that it was linked to the house which was owned by the Neri-Cremona family, and was situated in the same (now) Via di Pallacorda. A separate document indicates that in the same year the tennis court was rented out to a man known as, Francesco, nicknamed “lo Zoppo” (the Crippled), and to Orazio Bramante, for 120 scudi per year.

The Tennis Court’s Professionals

The two Via di Pallacorda tennis professionals Francesco and Orazio had rented the house next to the tennis court for the amount of 75 scudi per year. We can conclude from the Latin text in the margin of the act that the tennis court had become available for play by April 1604 (“Ab anno 1604, situs de quo agitur erat pro uso vulgo Pallacorda”, translated: from 1604 the site is in use for a game that is commonly known as Pallacorda), and it must already have been run as an active court. We may take it for granted that ‘Lo Zoppo’ and his assistant served as the tennis court’s Padrone and Pallarorespectively and performed the tennis professional’s customary duties, such as making balls, marking matches and giving lessons. The Via di Pallacorda tennis court was a public court, as opposed to the numerous private, aristocratic tennis courts that were linked to palaces in Rome.

A Pro Named Francesco Beltramo?

I now begin to wonder if we can identify Lo Scherno’s ‘mastro Beltramo’, as the Via di Pallacorda tennis professional ‘Francesco, il Zoppo’ cited in Bracciolini’s Lo Scherno. We remember how the ‘mastro’ had handed Apollo and Hyacinth their rackets before their match. Why had Bracciolini opted to give the pro a name? Besides, in the same context, it had struck me how Bracciolini had Apollo and Hyacinth enter a small street and soon enter the tennis court. It seems a disguised reference to the original tennis court site - now a garage - in the Via di Pallacorda, which is still just as short and narrow as in Caravaggio’s time. Had Bracciolini played on the court himself, perhaps, to enhance his image of the game Caravaggio played, to make it more vivid in his mind, and had he made the acquaintance of the pro on that occasion? When Bracciolini visited Rome in 1613 he may well have been invited to stay at Palazzo Firenze as a special Medici guest. We may see this hidden reference to the name ‘mastro Beltramo’ as another clever trick by the poet to keep his readers confused about the true nature of his tennis account.

In Episode Seven I already hinted at the significance of establishing a sales or rental contract for the Via di Pallacorda tennis court might assume the qualities of a rollercoaster. I have managed to trace the needle in the Archivio’s haystack of dusty archival volumes that I was looking for. Once you have established the name of the owner(s) - elusive for so long in my case - as well as the exact location of the tennis court and how it related to the Medici’s Palazzo Firenze, all kinds of exciting possibilities open up for a successful perusal of archival documents.

The momentum in the match is turning in my favour. I am well ahead in the set, I feel. It is essential to keep focused, hit the ball deep, go for the right angles. So many potential targets to score a decisive point.

Via di Pallacorda Street Sign.