Sotheby's Death of Hyacinth
I am pleased to tell you that I have found support for my theory that The Death was inspired by Caravaggio’s ill-fated tennis match. There proves to be a copy of the Cherbourg painting (or it may even be the original), which was sold at Sotheby’s in London in December 2000. It is attributed to a follower of Caravaggio, a so-called caravaggist. I hereby cite from the Sotheby catalogue: ‘[...] The artist has introduced a slight change in the story, as the two rackets in the lower left indicate that the two youths were playing a game of pallacorda (tennis) rather than throwing disci. This is particularly significant in the light of the famous event which took place in Rome on 29 [sic] May, when Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a street fight after a disputed bet on a game of pallacorda. This event forced Caravaggio to flee Rome for Naples, under the threat of capital punishment, and it was well-known to his contemporaries. It is very likely that this painting, in which the game of pallacorda and death play an important part, alludes to this event’.
When carefully studying Sotheby’s Apollo and Hyacinthus, which is in urgent need of restoration, one can detect only slight distinctions in style and detail from the Cherbourg version. It cannot be ruled out that it is by another hand. One feature in the Cherbourg painting strikes me: we actually see a stream of blood flowing from the mouth of Hyacinth (as was noted in the 1809 auction sales description of the painting) rather than just a few drops that I think I can detect in the Sotheby version. It seems unlikely to me that the blood from the mouth can be caused by a ball striking the opponent’s head vehemently, as was the case with the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis match. May it be interpreted, I wonder, as a disguised allusion to the serious internal injury inflicted on Ranuccio Tomassoni on 28 May? According to contemporary news reports he was mortally wounded in the stomach after the tennis match from the sword wielded by Caravaggio. An interesting angle that I need to pursue further.
Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus (1606)
The dramatic effect Caravaggio’s tennis match had on his art recently inspired the director, playwright and actor Marco Baliani to stage an intriguing performance at the courtyard of the Brera Museum in Milan. He brought to life Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, preserved at the museum, and painted just after the 1606 tennis match. It is a stunning painting showing Caravaggio’s interpretation of the Gospel of Luke, which recounted Christ’s Resurrection, displaying the two disciples’ surprise and awe as they become aware who is sitting next to them. The spectacle at the Brera vividly combines Caravaggio’s duel of 1606 with the dynamics of some of the works the painter produced during the dark years of 1606-1610. Gradually the spectators see the figures from the painting were transformed into living creatures, talking and gesticulating, while performing the biblical story.
But Baliani incorporated another story in the performance: a re-enactment of the Caravaggio-Tomassoni duel, which took place more than sixteen centuries after the Emmaus Gospel. The spectators saw an image of the interior of an inn emerge on stage, representing the tavern that was linked to the tennis court in the Via di Pallacorda. Here a reproduction of the fight was staged, with Baliani acting as Caravaggio and one of his colleagues as Ranuccio. The director’s objective was to demonstrate the dynamic dimension in the art of a painter on the run, having produced the Supper at Emmaus just after the 1606 tennis match. As a sequence of the performance in the Brera courtyard, three of Caravaggio’s most macabre paintings were projected scenographically for the audience. One of the paintings projected was the biographical David and the Head of Goliath which Caravaggio had made for Scipione Borghese. Interesting, by the way, that Baliani should mention an inn that was linked to the tennis court. He had done his homework, a basic bar was linked virtually to any public pallacorda. Here the players could have something to drink after the game, usually paid for by the player who lost the match.
We need to get a better insight into what actually happened on or near the tennis court on 28 May 1606 that may have inspired The Death portrait.