Caravaggio's Tennis Match

Caravaggio Blog

Caravaggio's Tennis Match

Present-Day Rome: Caravaggio has left an indelible mark on Rome. Tourists can still chase his masterpieces. Of the 60-70 pictures by the master to have survived, at least twenty hang in Roman churches and museums. Numerous tours are organised during which the guides follow in Caravaggio’s footsteps, weaving a fascinating story of the painter’s well-known tragic end in the process. Some of the walks start from the site where the artist got embroiled in the infamous duel, the Via di Pallacorda.

The garage in Via di Pallacorda, on the same site as the indoor tennis court.

‘... Good to see that you’re still following. Keep close. We have now arrived at the site of the fatal tennis match, here in Via di Pallacorda. This garage here on the left, to be precise. As you can see the building retains nothing of the original seventeenth-century architectural design when it was used as a tennis court. But the measurements of the garage’s interior, roughly thirty by ten metres, correspond with those of a pallacorda. Here, opposite the garage, you see Palazzo Firenze, which served as the working palace of Cardinal del Monte, the Medici agent in Rome and Caravaggio’s first patron and lifelong mentor. Contemporary news reports suggest that it was with this palace that the tennis court should be associated ... ’.

The first tennis-related text I find about the artist is written by a contemporary artist (Karel van Mander, 1548-1606) in 1604: “. Caravaggio does not pursue his studies steadfastly, so that he will roam about for a month or two with a sword at his side, and with a servant following him, going from one tennis court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, making him a character that is very difficult to get along with”. What exemplary foresight this tennis-related reference is, two years before the fatal match!

Caravaggio’s Raucous World

The modern reader is bound to be struck by the violence mirrored in the behaviour of a painter, considered to be the greatest master of his age. But it is exactly Caravaggio’s anti-establishment spirit that makes him stand out among his contemporaries. In the early 1600s Rome was the nerve centre of Christendom, but its special attraction for both pilgrims and all kinds of fortune-seekers made it a dangerous and violent place, thronged with swindlers, vagabonds and gamesters. Many artists enjoyed brawling and drinking in the taverns. Baroque Rome was first and foremost a male city, dominated by clerics and by soldiers. Caravaggio selected his friends from this hectic setting, also picking out the most attractive courtesans that he met in the crowded inns. It is in this raucous world that Caravaggio became possessed by a “demone”, as Dario Fo put it in his 2005 biography of the artist.

Two Contemporary Accounts

We start our inquiry with a potentially well-informed contemporary source, Giovanni Baglione, who was certainly closer to Ranuccio Tomassoni than to Caravaggio. The painter, one of Caravaggio’s principal artistic rivals and fiercest critics, writes that the disagreement between the painter and Tomassoni occurred during an argument in the course of a tennis match (‘per certa differenza di gioco di palla a corda’). Baglione laid the blame for the violent confrontation on Caravaggio, portraying his colleague as someone who “was to be found in the company of men, who, like himself, were also belligerent”. Baglione relates how finally Caravaggio confronted Ranuccio Tomassoni, a very polite young man. According to Baglione they argued and ended up fighting. Michelangelo wounded Ranuccio in the thigh, after which the latter fell to the ground. The painter subsequently delivered the fatal blow. All involved in the affair fled Rome, Michelangelo left for Palestrina. Another biographer, Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1615-1696), gives a short but colourful description of the 1606 match, writing that the painter played ‘gioco di palla a corda’ with a young friend and that during the match they started hitting each other with their rackets. Eventually Caravaggio drew his sword and killed his opponent. For his crime the painter risked capital punishment (bando capitale) and was forced to leave Rome, living like a man on the run, never to return to the city again.

A Report from Urbino

The account sent to the Urbino court of the della Roveres was most widely used by Caravaggio scholars to try to establish what may have happened on or around the tennis court: “… On the aforesaid Sunday night a notable quarrel (‘questione’) took place with four on each side (‘di 4 p[er] banda’). The leader on the one side was Ranuccio of Terni, who died immediately after a long fight; and of the other Michelangelo da Caravaggio, a painter of some fame in our day, who reportedly remained wounded, but his whereabouts are not known. Severely wounded, however, and taken to hospital was one of his companions whom they call the Captain from Bologna, and who was a soldier of Castello [San Angelo]. The incident is said to have been caused by a game (‘gioco’) involving 10 scudi which the dead man had won from the painter …”.

A view from Piazza di Firenze of Via di Pallacorda, with Palazzo Firenze on the right. (Source: Google Maps)

Printed news bulletins (avvisi), which appeared in Rome immediately after the ill-fated tennis match, indicate that Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni played at a court near the palace of the Medici ambassador to Rome, Palazzo Firenze, in a street now appropriately called Via di Pallacorda. Exactly what happened in the 1606 match is the subject of much speculation. The reports did not indicate if the tennis court was actually linked to the palace in any way or whether it was a separate building. It was probably also to the Medici Palazzo Firenze that the injured Caravaggio was transported immediately after the match, as it was the closest and the safest temporary refuge for him.

Views of Modern Caravaggio Biographers

What I have established so far is that modern scholars have failed to put the fatal tennis match into proper perspective. They tend to interpret the sketchy contemporary descriptions of Caravaggio’s match as a game that was played out in the open, in a field or in the street - interpretations that were probably sparked by the name of the street, Via di Pallacorda -, rather than on a covered court. This misconception is significant because an acute insight into the practice of tennis in Caravaggio’s time, played within the secluded enclosure of an indoor tennis court, may be instrumental in providing clues as to the circumstances of the match. Some vital aspects of the tennis match need to be established. Who were the owners of the tennis court, and what was their relationship with Caravaggio? Was the pallacorda in some way connected to the Medici’s Palazzo Firenze, as suggested in the reports? To appreciate what may have happened on court, it is also essential to explore the game’s concomitants, betting and the frequent breaches of its code of conduct, an angle that is so far unexplored in Caravaggio studies.

Conducting archival research into the building history of the Via di Pallacorda tennis court is not a particularly tempting prospect. During my first few visits to Rome’s Archivio di Stato I find that the judicial documents I need to delve into to identify the owners, are virtually inaccessible. The acts of conveyance of property I consult (as near to the year 1606 as possible) lack indices, for the period before 1625 at least, and if they occasionally do provide names it is only Christian names for buyers and sellers of property. Only three portfolio books with acts can be ordered per day. Many days of tedious spadework lie ahead. Where do you start if you have no names to start off with? However, if I do come across a relevant notary act with a sales or rental contract of the pallacorda, my research could well turn into an unstoppable roller-coaster ride.