Allow me to give you a glimpse of the mental mindset I start off with in my research into the Death of Hyacinth of our inquiry and provide an insight on how I come to venture into my interpretation of the picture's potential biographical context, connected some way or another with Caravaggio's notorious tennis match. I imagine the picture's theme must have appealed to the Princes of the Church who had supported Caravaggio during his turbulent life. The exact context of an Apollo and Hyacinth tennis match is still a mystery to me, but the combination of two classical heroes, Apollo and Hyacinth, engaged in the most popular sport practised by the early seventeenth-century elite must have exercised great potential. If such a divine figure as Apollo, the personification of classical male beauty and God of the Arts, had been instrumental in death, who could hold it against a mere painter who had done the same?
Caravaggio's Tennis World
The Death of Hyacinth with rackets theme cannot be viewed independently of the tennis game's great popularity in Italy as well as in the rest of Europe. In Caravaggio's time Pallacorda courts became an integral part in the layout of palaces, particularly in Rome. One of the painter's principal patrons, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, for example, had tennis courts built at three of his residences. We may wonder what the game's specific qualities were that made the aristocracy and the urban Roman elite embrace tennis so wholeheartedly. Besides passion for the sport, playing the game permitted Caravaggio and his literary and artistic colleagues to rub shoulders with the elite and to promote their work to aristocratic patrons whose palaces were usually equipped with a tennis court. It was principally the very nature of the tennis game, the competitive element and the challenging aspects of its scoring system that must have caused the volatile characters of Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni to flare up during the match that they played in 1606. Welcome to Caravaggio's tennis world! And welcome to mine, by the way, because I also play this obscure, maddening sport. I got infected by the bug when I was introduced to it a long time ago, in 1986. For Caravaggio the pallacorda bug worked as a venom, and turned him into a killer. That is what the game could do to you.
The pallacorda game that Caravaggio was so infatuated with, is still played. It is called ‘tennis', ‘real tennis' actually, after 1874, when the new game of lawn tennis swept the world and gradually began to overshadow the old game. New York can pride itself on a showcase venue for the ancient sport: the venerable New York Racquet & Tennis Club (N.Y.R.T.C). This four-storey building of 1918, fittingly designed in Italian Renaissance style by the architect Charles Follen McKim, stands out on Park Avenue, as it is dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers. Two real tennis courts are laid-out on its third floor. Here the aristocratic game, once known as the game of kings, persists to this day, the N.Y.R.T.C. members not feeling sure whether to feel superior or merely eccentric.
The R.T.C. club’s facilities, including three dining rooms, a swimming pool, Turkish baths and sculptures of ancient heroes in the vast dressing room, would have been familiar stamping ground for Caravaggio when he negotiated the commission of a new painting at the Roman palace of one of his patrons. If the painter, as in a time capsule, had paid a surprise visit to the R.T.C. and watched a game of real tennis he would have been fully aware of what was going on. The rules of the game have remained virtually unchanged since they were first regulated in 1555 by an Italian philosopher, Antonio Scaino. A teasing jibe is that real tennis is a game played by two or four players… one always being a duke. Patrician venues such as London’s Queen’s Club, Lord’s Cricket ground and Hampton Court Palace (The Royal Tennis Court, dating from c. 1625, one wall having survived from Henry VIII’s tennis court, c. 1530) indeed possess real tennis courts, but most of the other forty clubs worldwide charge membership fees that compare favourably with those of its modern counterpart. No membership fees in Caravaggio’s time, by the way, it was common practice for the loser of the match to pay for the balls and the drinks.
My first experience playing the game (in 1986) was frustrating, but at the same time inspiring. The rackets are made of wood and are asymmetrical, the balls solid, and hand-sewn and they hardly bounce. The intricacies of the rules, the lay-out of the court and the weight of the solid ball - a ball hit off the middle of your racket sends a shudder up your arm - make it a game difficult to master. But I soon found that the sheer endless range of tactical possibilities the player can opt for during a rally, give the game an extra dimension and unique appeal. This infection by the real tennis bug is perhaps the real motivation for my persistence in following the trail of Caravaggio and his ill-fated tennis match.