Death of Hyacinth Theme

Caravaggio Blog

The Death of Hyacinth, Jean Broc, 1801, based on Ovid's discus contest, Museé Sainte-Croix, Poitiers.

From the early Renaissance to the late Baroque, Ovid’s Metamorphoses was regarded as the standard manual of ancient culture in the field of literature, music and the visual arts. The myth of Apollo and Hyacinth (in Book X) is a celebration of male love. The Metamorphoses’ main theme addresses change and transformation in the classical world. Together Apollo and Hyacinth engaged in all kinds of sports and other pastimes, from hunting to music-making. Ovid tells how once Apollo threw the heavy discus as hard as he could, which then struck the young Spartan prince. Hyacinth was felled, and Apollo took him in his arms, a pose that is common in illustrations of this Ovid love story. Apollo subsequently transformed his lover into a hyacinth as a symbolic gesture of eternal love. Renaissance and Baroque poets and painters, however, tried to surpass their ancient heroes by incorporating their own innovative ideas into their work. Most artists opted for Ovid’s original discus-throwing accident, some used the most popular contemporary physical exercise: tennis.

Death of Hyacinth fresco, Savigliano (photo).

A Death of Hyacinth Fresco

The Death of Hyacinth painting under review is charged with emotion. The painter has focused on they two protagonists of the tennis match only; Apollo and his dying playing partner Hyacinth united in an intimate embrace. Fortunately we possess an image that brings to life the complete setting of the match that took place in the Death of Hyacinth. It is a fresco of c. 1635 that can be admired in the Hall of the Gods in the former Ducal Palace in Savigliano, not far from Turin.

Just try to absorb what you see, a well laid-out tennis court from the Baroque, Apollo bending over anxiously to see how seriously his opponent is injured, still holding the racket he used to hit the fatal stroke. The ominous spider’s web in the centre of the net adds a mysterious, symbolic dimension to the representation, the two players in the foreground apparently serving as a bridge towards the contemporary observer of the fresco. The spectators in the fresco watch the tragic scene, seated in an arch-like gallery that resembles the private box of a theatre (no coincidence, by the way, the characteristic shape and lay-out of the Baroque tennis court contributed significantly to the architectural design of modern theatres). We may take it for granted that Caravaggio had no time to worry about the physical state of his opponent on 28 May 1606. He made his way out of the tennis court precipitately, never to return to Rome again.

Death of Hyacinth Tiepolo, 1752-1753 (Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid).

Tiepolo's Death of Hyacinth

Searching for other Apollo and Hyacinth with rackets themes as depicted in art I soon stumble on a painting that must be regarded as the theme’s ultimate specimen: The Death of Hyacinth by the great Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo. It is preserved in Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Tiepolo positioned the dying Hyacinth, struck by one of the balls lying in front of him prominently in the foreground of his painting. The fatal instrument used to strike the ball, an imposing racket, lies near Hyacinth’s lifeless body. We can recognize the special features of the indoor tennis court on which the tragic tennis match was played: the tiled floor and the characteristic wooden penthouse and gallery on the left, behind the spectators, as well as a drooping net in the middle. On the vast canvas, the artist painted the famous mythological love affair between the God Apollo and the Spartan prince Hyacinth described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Ovid described a discus contest between Apollo and Hyacinth, but why had Tiepolo opted for a tennis match?

The Painting's Literary Source

Renaissance and Baroque poets in their interpretations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses opted for a sport that appealed much more to their readers than ancient discus throwing. Virtually every principal palace in Italy at the time could pride itself on an indoor tennis court, a sala della pallacorda. Tiepolo and his artistic colleagues interpreted humanist poetry as ‘speaking pictures’. Tiepolo’s The Death of Hyacinth has a literary source of inspiration: Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara’s Metamorfosi di Ovidio (first edition in 1561), in which the poet sets the stage for a tennis match, rather than a discus contest between Apollo and Hyacinth. In his interpretation the metamorphosis takes place through a transformation of the tennis court into an ancient garden, a scene which can also be seen in Tiepolo’s Death of Hyacinth background and Savigliano’s fresco (floral decorations on main wall).

In the light of my research into the Death of Hyacinth and a possible allusion to Caravaggio’s tennis match in the figures of Apollo and Hyacinth, I am pleased to learn that there is a tasty biographical dimension to Tiepolo’s stunning picture. The German Count Wilhelm zu Schaumburg-Lippe (1724-1777), who asked Tiepolo to execute the painting in 1752, was a dedicated tennis player, with one opponent he favoured above all others: his tennis-playing musician friend, who died in 1751. In a letter the count’s father referred to him as “your friend Apollo”.

An Account That Reads Like a Whodunit

I have a story to tell, as you will have gathered. What follows is not the account of a fact-finding mission, facts being very hard to come by in my research. I need to pursue my quest in very much the same vein as a psychological profiler in criminal investigations. He attempts to identify indicators in unsolved, ‘cold’ cases through psychological deduction and elimination. It is my main objective to make plausible the assumption that the production of The Death of Hyacinth was inspired by the ill-fated tennis match Caravaggio played on 28 May 1606. My first hunch is that the figures of Apollo and Hyacinth may actually be identified as Caravaggio and his tennis opponent Ranuccio Tomassoni, but I realize that at this early stage of my research this is just a shot in the dark. Two other important elements I need to explore are to find out who commissioned the picture and try to establish who painted it. A principal aspect in our mystery inquiry is bound to be ‘motive’, the need to find who may have been best motivated to commission The Death, or, as I look at it now, who felt the compulsion to try to exonerate Caravaggio or at least gain sympathy for the crime he committed. Given the great emotional power displayed in our Death painting I need to be particularly alert for Caravaggio patrons or mentors who showed a special interest in the game of tennis. Plenty of candidates to pick from, I fear.

Follow me in a quest that takes us first to nineteenth-century France, and then for a Caravaggio tour through Baroque Rome, The Theatre of the World, both in a political and in an artistic sense. In addition, you, dedicated follower of Caravaggio, in the course of this account will become part of a privileged group to be initiated into the basic rules of this ancient, quirky game our protagonist was so infatuated with.

Please, bear with me.