The 1606 Tennis Match Revisited

Caravaggio Blog

It was a belligerent gang that gathered at Rome’s Via di Pallacorda tennis court on 28 May 1606, looking for trouble. Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni had a score to settle. Ranuccio was accompanied by his brother Giovan Francesco and the brothers of his wife Lavinia Tomassoni, Ignazio and Federigo Giugoli. Caravaggio also brought a team of armed men, his regular tennis partner the architect Onorio Longhi, as well as Petronio Troppa, a Bolognese captain of Rome’s Castello district. Another soldier from Bologna, Corporal Paolo Aldati, may also have been present, as he was later summoned to appear before Rome’s Tribunale Criminale del Governatore to testify on the circumstances of Ranuccio Tomassoni’s death. He had been waiting outside Palazzo Firenze, in front of the tennis court. Aldati was perhaps the fourth man fighting on Caravaggio’s behalf. I do not exclude that the fourth man was actually Cecco, by the way, one of the principal candidates to have produced the Death, or at least one of its two versions.

Given the archival tennis court details that have come to light a new interpretation of the 1606 match needs to be established. The first element to be addressed in our inquiry is whether the two rivals played a tennis match at all or was there merely a duel, as some scholars would have us believe. In his Caravaggio biography, Andrew Graham-Dixon claims that the pallacorda match was just a pretext. He casts considerable doubt on whether the fight between Caravaggio and Tomassoni was sparked by an argument over a tennis match, arguing that if it had been so, why would at least three apparently innocent bystanders, namely Longhi and the two Giugoli brothers, have defied court orders and gone into hiding? Four men on one side, four on the other: two combatants, two seconds, four witnesses. An encounter on a tennis court, according to Graham-Dixon “a flat field that was often also used as a fencing arena”. The fight between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni in his view was a prearranged duel, the stories about a tennis match, a bet, a disputed call were all fabrications, invented by the participants themselves to hide what had really happened.

Portrait of Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, later Grand Duke Ferdinando I, Scipione Pulzone, c. 1580.

The Palazzo Firenze Tennis Court

Almost all the news reports that came out just after the tragic tennis match of 28 May 1606 alluded to a ‘pallacorda’ that was located near Palazzo Firenze. It was here that Caravaggio killed his opponent Ranuccio Tomassoni. Surprisingly in their research on the pallacorda match Graham-Dixon, and all the other (art) scholars who dealt with Caravaggio’s 1606 tennis match have failed to find out if there was actually a tennis court that was associated with Palazzo Firenze. A quick glance in the volume Palazzo Firenze in Campo Marzio (2007), written by Maria Giulia Aurigemma, would have shown them that Palazzo Firenze indeed possessed a tennis court, as early as 1569. It was in 1561 that Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici acquired a Palazzo in Rome’s Campo Marzio rione, which was destined for his son Ferdinando, who in 1562 became a cardinal.

It was not until 1569 that a renovation and extension programme was started for the cardinal’s projected Roman residence. Aurigemma claims that young Ferdinando aimed to make the construction of the tennis court a prestige project. In her description of the Palazzo Firenze tennis court (pp. 145-146) she argues that Ferdinando did not merely have the pallacorda built for his personal use, but also for the courtiers. In her view the court was primarily constructed as a special meeting place for Rome’s elite and that it was destined to impress the city. As we saw in the previous episode in 1604 the court was in the possession of the Neri family. We cannot rule out that a new court was built by the Neri, but this is unlikely given the state-of-the-art status of this Medici pallacorda.

Critical Analysis of Tennis Match

Graham-Dixon is not the only scholar to have expressed doubts as to an actual tennis match having been played. One of the studies for Rome’s Caravaggio a Roma exhibition of 2011, written by Daniele Balduzzi, focuses on Caravaggio’s ‘l’omicidio e la fuga’ and questions whether there was a tennis match played. His interpretation is based on two testimonies during the Bolognese Captain Petronio Troppa’s trial at Rome’s Tribunale Criminale del Governatore. In his analysis, Balduzzi claims that the pallacorda game between Caravaggio and Ranuccio must have been just a pretext to settle an account between Caravaggio and Tomassoni. He tends to conclude from a remark by the judge presiding over the trial that Troppa was compensated for his contribution in a fight, not in a game, and that evidently there had been no tennis match.

Graham-Dixon’s and Balducci’s accounts provide interesting starting-points for critical analysis. The first question we are faced with is whether the tennis match was just a pretext, a fabrication as Graham-Dixon and Balduzzi claim. We can safely claim that interpretations that tend to view the tennis match as just a pretence completely disregard contemporary accounts of the fatal incident that clearly associate it with a tennis game. Furthermore, in the seventeenth century the tennis court was universally associated with skirmishes and duels, and eventually with dissolute living. It was in front of the ‘gioco della palla’, near the Medici Palazzo Firenze where, according to the testimonies, Troppa and Aldati had met just before the fight between Caravaggio and Ranuccio. It must therefore have been on the Cremona-Neri Pallacorda where the flare-up occurred.

The Tennis Game’s Specific Nature

As to the question of how the ‘4 per banda’ from the avviso sent to the Urbino court (see Episode Seven) is to be interpreted, we may assume that the confrontation between Caravaggio and Ranuccio may have started as a match with two, three or four players on each side, all three types of matches being common at the time. If two players had a score to settle, however, a singles match was the automatic choice. A tennis match was seen as an attractive alternative to a swordfight, preferably with a stake to fit the occasion. We can take it for granted that the two tennis opponents had agreed on the nature of the bet when they challenged each other to a tennis match. It may have been a money wager of 10 scudi, mentioned in the Urbino report. Bets were regarded as legitimate calculated risks in dexterity games such as tennis. It must have been the vagaries of the scoring method that ignited the subsequent duel, in which the fatal blow was eventually inflicted. Ranuccio was mortally wounded when Caravaggio obviously ruptured the femoral artery near his opponent’s groin. It was for their active role in the ill-fated tennis match and ensuing fight that Onorio Longhi and the Giugoli brothers defied court orders and went into hiding.

It is the secluded nature of tennis that is responsible for the lack of facts known about the match. Caravaggio’s and Ranuccio Tomassoni’s ‘banda’ of four were admitted to the court, perhaps with a few hand-picked friends. We may well assume that both the match and the violent brawl which followed must have taken place within the confines of the tennis court, probably even on court. It was imperative for our two protagonists to settle their conflict indoors because duelling was prohibited in Rome and punishable by death, bando capitale .

Students of the University of Padua playing tennis (1610, figure near the net is the Pallaro), Gouache, private collection.

But there was at least one other person present: the tennis professional who marked the game they played, as was customary. There is no record among the 1606 Tribunale testimonies of the Caravaggio trials in which a pallaro testified. The tennis court Padrone, or his assistant, must have made the booking with Caravaggio or Tomassoni personally, and have tried to secure the court fee after the match. But things had got out of hand. The professionals obviously had failed to claim payment afterwards, players and witnesses having fled the crime scene precipitately. The tennis pros (Francesco ‘lo Zoppo’ and Orazio Bramante , see previous episode) must have preferred to remain out of the limelight, not coming forward as witnesses to the homicide committed on or near their court. But in private conversations they had probably shown no scruples in relating all the juicy details of what had happened on court.