The Tennis Court Owners

Caravaggio Blog

Only an observer of the Death who is fully aware of the scope of the tennis game’s popularity in Caravaggio’s time can acutely appreciate the picture’s potential attraction for contemporary collectors. The database of tennis courts in Rome accessible on this site’s homepage shows how much the game was embraced by members of Rome’s aristocracy. The very first book on tennis, Antonio Scaino’s Trattato del giuoco della palla of 1555, was specifically written for the ball-playing courtiers, aristocrats and members of the urban elite. The introduction of his rules and laws enabled the aristocracy to draw a line between themselves and the average citizen. As the game became increasingly embraced by the aristocracy, poets employed the image of tennis to expose and ridicule its exclusive nature, the corruption and other vices at court. Princes were frequently compared to Gods, and vice versa, so it should not surprise us that the God Apollo was satirised for engaging in such fun-filled pastimes as tennis, as we saw in Bracciolini’s Lo Scherno degli Dei of 1618, with probable allusions to Caravaggio’s tennis match. Our Death painting, however, incorporates strong biblical overtones, through Hyacinth’s Pietà. The emotional element is completely absent in Bracciolini’s comical literary rendering of the God Apollo on the run.

In the seventeenth century the tennis court was universally associated with skirmishes and duels, and eventually with dissolute living. For a contemporary image of the game of tennis we refer to Florence’s Accademia della Crusca, in its Dizionario of 1612. A special section of twenty-one paragraphs addresses all technical and allegorical aspects of the ‘palla’. The text includes a warning to parents who send their boys to Pisa to study at the university, as they are bound to become ‘virtuosi nel bordello e nelle pallacorda’ and will lose their honour as well as their money there. It was customary to place bets on the results, by players as well as spectators. As is claimed in the dictionary’s proposal for corrections to the text, the subject of ‘palle’ should be seen against the background of the balls in the Medici coat of arms. The Crusca’s Dizionario also features a brief account of the Hyacinth ‘racchetta’ match with Apollo, not opting for Ovid’s original discus contest.

The Neri and de’ Medici Families

Since no documentary evidence has come to light on how the Neri family may have acquired the Via di Pallacorda tennis court from the Medici, we need to follow the Neri family’s footsteps as they progressed through Rome’s civic society and try to establish if some sort of formal or informal relationship existed between the Medici and the Neri families. Given the elevated status of Claudio Neri’s professional career as a legal advisor of the Sforza di Santa Fiora princes, it is not surprising to note that the Neri family members came to be tied to some of the city’s leading families. It was through high-level marriages that they became connected with the Orsini and the Sforza, families particularly close to the Medici. That the Neri family developed close connections with the Orsini can be concluded from the marriage of the eldest son of the tennis court owners Gabriele Cremona and Faustina Neri. Claudio Cremona married Barbara Orsini, daughter of Ferrante Orsini, ‘Signore di Licenza e Roccagiovine’. Barbara’s older sister, Leonora Orsini (1604-1691) in 1624 married Vincenzo Nobili, who was related to the Sforza family and a descendant on the maternal side of the del Monte family.

Drawing of young boy with tennis racket, Sigismondo Coccapani, 1610.

Francesco Neri, Rota Auditor

How the Neri family came into possession of the Via di Pallacorda court may have been an example of favouritism, instigated by the Medici. The elevated post at the Curia of Claudio Neri’s son, Francesco, may have been instrumental in this special gift rendering process. From the turn of the century this compassionate champion of justice advanced up the Roman career ladder and was subsequently selected by Pope Clemente VIII to apply his expertise in law for the common good, through a prestigious office at the Curia. On 19 February 1601 ‘Franciscus Nerius’ was presented by his patronorum and appointed as a member of the Apostolic Tribunal of the Sacred Roman Rota, before Cardinal Girolamo Pamphili (Sacrae Rotae Romanae desionum …, 1633, p. 654).

In his 1994 essay, ‘Carriere e Curia Romana’, Alessandro Gnavi tried to retrace the methods of selection for judicial posts at the Curia and the adoption of family strategies in the acquisition of the office of Uditore among the Roman Rota. To mark the significance of the office of Auditor, it was seen as one of the most privileged accesses to cardinalship. From 1550-1654, ninety-one men became auditors, of these four became pope, twenty-four more became cardinals, and twenty-five became bishops. Its composition was a college of twelve auditors when relatively rigid criteria prevailed on the Rota member’s geographical origin. Francesco Neri’s origin was obviously Papal Rome, his father originating from Acquapendente in Lazio. A long period of negotiations with the Borghese pope Paul V (1605-1621) started on whether the Medici were entitled to a Rota auditor who originated from Tuscany. Gnavi’s study points to the recurrent phenomenon of favouritism among members of the same family holding office within the Curia, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Is it just coincidental that soon after Francesco Neri’s appointment as Rota Member that the Neri family apparently came into possession of the Medici tennis court, possibly in exchange for a role as the Medici’s judicial ‘servitore’?

Pierre Eschinard, French Lobbyist at the Curia

Apart from Francesco, we need to provide insight into the role of his younger sister Olimpia Neri. She married the French nobleman Pierre Eschinard (Pietro Eschinardi) in 1606, the year that Caravaggio played his fateful tennis match on the Neri-Cremona tennis court. Eschinard ( c. 1567- 1647) came to Rome in 1595-1596 in the retinue of the French ambassador after the reconciliation between Pope Clemente VIII and Henry IV (1553-1610) at the time of the French King’s conversion to Catholicism. In 1600 Henry IV married Maria de’ Medici, the niece of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando de’ Medici. He is generally seen as the instigator of Henry IV’s conversion, and in addition he lent the King money and used his influence to get the pope to accept Henry’s conversion. We may well assume that Eschinard, as King Henry IV’s private secretary in Rome, was closely involved in the preparations for the wedding, thus building up a relationship with the Medici. In 1615 Eschinard received the brevet de banquiers-expéditionnaire du Roi, having unofficially held this position from at least 1607. He became responsible for monitoring all the “expeditions de France” as “banquier et solliciteur”, under the authority of the French ambassador at the Roman Curia.

From 1605 Eschinard became increasingly involved in art transactions with Vincenzo Giustiniani, one of Caravaggio’s most important patrons (source: Il Restauro di Palazzo Giustinani, etc. p. 52). Eschinard may well have known Caravaggio personally. As Isabella Salvagni points out in her Palazzo Carpegna publication, from 1611 Eschinard also ran a bank, a ‘mensa nummuralia’, and increasingly served as a private banker who was also involved in art transactions. From 1617 the French astronomer and antiquarian, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, engaged Eschinard’s services for his business affairs in Rome: paying suppliers, dealing with bankers, and advancing funds. Is there any chance that Eschinard, a seasoned political and cultural lobbyist, suggested some sort of compensation from the Medici for the tarnished reputation of their former, now the Neri tennis court, after the dramatic death that occurred there in 1606? Anyone seated in the court’s spectator gallery watching a match would automatically associate the caravaggesque Death of Hyacinth picture hanging there, with this event.