The Medici Angle

Caravaggio Blog

In Episode One I wrote that after some nine years of research I was beginning to detect a beacon of light at the end of the tunnel. In Episode Eight I expressed the expectation that if I came across a relevant notary act with a sales or rental contract of the tennis court in Rome’s Via di Pallacorda, my research could well turn into an unstoppable roller-coaster ride. As pointed out in Episode Sixteen, I did trace the relevant contract, and established that in 1604 the court was in the possession of the Neri family. However, it was most probably originally the state-of-the-art pallacorda that Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici had built in 1570. As will be explained below, this proves an important insight in our inquiry into how the production of our Death painting gestated. So, after almost eleven years of research, I am pleased to tell you that the beacon of light is now all-encompassing. I must have left the tunnel….!

You may remember that the first time allusions to a potential Caravaggio context were made in these episodes was in the literary rendering of the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis theme, in Francesco Bracciolini’s Lo Scherno degli Dei. The disguised references were particularly apparent in the way the poet described Apollo’s flight after the fatal tennis match, and his visit to a famous osteria.

Villa Medici in Rome, with Cardinal Ferdinando’s tennis court incorporated in the garden wing’s basement: G. B. Falda,c. 1660.

Caravaggio, too, experienced one of the most dramatic events of his life when during his flight after the 1606 match he visited a famous osteria, in Naples. Here he was attacked brutally. Just as intriguing is how in his introduction to the Apollo and Hyacinth theme Bracciolini explains that ‘maestra natura’ once very diligently painted Hyacinth, making a second, improved version later. Is there any chance that the poet, in a disguised manner, referred to the two Death of Hyacinth pictures of our inquiry? Had he seen them, or was he aware in 1618 that they were planned? It was to Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici that Francesco Bracciolini dedicated the first edition in 1618 of his Lo Scherno degli Dei. Carlo was the son of Grand Duke Ferdinando I, who in 1570 had the tennis court built at Palazzo Firenze, when he settled in Rome as the Medici cardinal.

Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici

That Ferdinando de’ Medici had given up possession of the Palazzo Firenze Pallacorda seems viable, because from c. 1580 onwards the recently acquired Villa Medici nearby served as the Medici cardinal’s residence. Here he soon had a Pallacorda built. The space still exists, and is now used as a viewing theatre for the Académie de France (see the database of tennis courts in Rome, link on homepage). When Ferdinando’s son Carlo used Palazzo Firenze as his (temporary) Roman residence from 1616, the young cardinal must have become fully aware of the tragic history of the court on the other side of the Via di Pallacorda. Had young Carlo made this known to Francesco Bracciolini when the poet was working on his Lo Scherno degli Dei?

In a recent study on Bracciolini’s work, Fabrizio Legger claims that Lo Scherno’s most fascinating elements are those where the poet alludes to contemporary reality. In Legger’s view Bracciolini seems to have been triggered in this more by the preferences of his patrons than by his own personal choice. This interpretation fits perfectly with the angle I am pursuing: the poet’s patron Carlo de’ Medici’s preference for the ‘palla’ game and his recent move to Rome’s Palazzo Firenze in 1616, with the tennis court just across the street. As we saw, Lo Scherno includes an Apollo and Hyacinth tennis game that appears to include a playful travesty of the most famous match in his readers’ minds: Caravaggio’s tennis match with Ranuccio Tomassoni of 1606.

The Via di Pallacorda Tennis Court Revisited

That Carlo de’Medici’s Palazzo Firenze proves to have possessed a tennis court is of considerable significance. It was already suggested in the news reports published just after the tragic tennis match of 28 May 1606 that it was played near the Medici palace. Uncertain is whether this was one and the same court as the Pallacorda owned by the Neri-Cremona family, but we may well assume that it was. It is a matter of how to interpret the original archival document’s description of the ‘Ab anno 1604, situs de quo agitur erat pro uso vulgo Pallacorda’ description, which translated reads: from 1604 the site is in use for a game that is commonly known as Pallacorda. We wonder what this ‘in use’ indicates; had it just been built (if so, almost certainly on the same site), or had the original Medici court been in disuse for some time before 1604 and been restored by the Neri family? Having a new court built from scratch at the site of an existing one was not in line with common practice at the time. After all, Ferdinando de’ Medici in 1570 had a ‘state-of-the-art’ Pallacorda built that in size and lay-out must have also met the requirements of the early seventeenth-century player. Claudio Neri’s Latin 1582 deed of sale for his Via di Pallacorda property, adjacent to Palazzo Firenze, does not mention any tennis court. But Claudio, or his children, may well have acquired the Medici tennis court at a later date. Had the Pallacorda been restored in 1604 to make it available as the dowry for the wedding of one of the daughters, her husband Gabriele Cremona obviously being a keen player?

In criminal investigations asking the right questions is paramount. I have tried to make a point of this in my quest for the hidden identity of the Death of Hyacinth painting. But in my attempt to answer all of the possible angles, I often felt like a juggler who is keeping a series of balls in the air simultaneously. One of the principal objectives in my research now is to narrow the field. I need to sharpen my antennae. As pointed out before, the Medici as the original owners of the ill-fated Via di Pallacorda tennis court, remain our most tempting contenders for commissioning the Death of Hyacinth painting, either for themselves, or as an appropriate gift. There is just one ball left now that I need to keep in the air, a Medici ball, so prominent in their coat of arms.