I am not out there completely on my own!
The Death of Hyacinth has escaped the notice of Caravaggio experts. What are you supposed to do when entering unexplored territory and any progress depends on the trained eye of an expert? This episode includes the result of reactions from specialised art scholars to the assumptions I had proposed to them. Since making conclusive judgements on reproductions is problematic, the experts’ views are tentative and non-committal at first. As I accumulate more relevant material on both the theme and possible patrons of the painting, and who painted it, the feedback becomes more generous. The specialists’ praise for the quality of the painting is unanimous. They emphasise its emotional dynamism and breathtaking composition.
The interpretations of the four scholars I contacted confirm my experience that certainty in the field of art attributions is hard to come by. Although the Death of Hyacinth is painted with an apparently original conception and style, it is difficult - even for caravaggist scholars - to stick a label on it. The principal conclusions to be drawn from the views of the experts are the following:
- It is almost certainly not by Caravaggio.
- It is probably by a Northern or French Caravaggist, Valentin de Boulogne being the most plausible. Other French names put forward are Gerard Douffet, Nicolas Regnier and the Italian Bartolomeo Manfredi.
- Two experts give their views on when it was probably painted: 1615-1625.
- Critical observations by two of the experts about my interpretation of a Caravaggio biographical context: Why would a painting that is supposed to capture Caravaggio’s most tragic moment be produced at least a decade after the 1606 killing and why would someone viewing this portrait at the time want to associate it with an event that took place such a long time ago?
- The provenance of the painting is crucial to find out more about its identity.
The observations in item four are certainly valid, but I am confident I can come up with an adequate motivation. I am struck, for example, by the number of poems with the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis theme that came out relatively soon after Caravaggio’s death in 1610. I cannot imagine this is completely coincidental. As to the question of provenance I have worked my way through the inventories of the most likely candidates to have commissioned the Death of Hyacinth, Caravaggio’s principal patrons: Cardinal del Monte, the Giustiniani brothers, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (the later Pope Urban VIII), and several others, including the antique sports expert Cassiano dal Pozzo, but I have not been able to find any record of a painting showing two mythological figures with rackets in their art collections.
Cecco del Caravaggio
Apart from the four scholars I have contacted, one other, long-established Caravaggio expert, has to be added: Mina Gregori. Her response to my query is intriguing, and translated reads: “I can assure you that the painting is not by Caravaggio. Gianni Papi (one of the few art scholars to have dealt with the painting) is probably right in ascribing ‘La Morte di Giacinto’ (The Death of Hyacinth) to Cecco del Caravaggio. I do not think it shows Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni. Caravaggio had a different psychology and approach to death. If you wish to publish on the painting, just state: “Attributed to Cecco del Caravaggio, ‘Death of Hyacinth’.”
The suggested attribution to Cecco del Caravaggio opens up all kinds of fascinating windows. His peculiar name was inspired by his admiration for the Maestro. Cecco del Caravaggio’s identity has long been obscure, but he has recently been identified as a certain Boneri, first name Francesco, consequently shortened to ‘Cecco’. He came to serve as Caravaggio’s young apprentice. His master is said to have used live models only, and he had secured the services of Cecco for this purpose almost all through his artistic career. The two must have had a particularly intensive personal relationship, and probably lived together in Palazzo Madama, the residence of his first Roman patron Cardinal del Monte, and later near Palazzo Firenze, from roughly 1595-1605. During this tempestuous stage of Caravaggio’s life, he depicted Cecco for example as the juvenile angel in Conversion of St. Paul, in Amor victorious, and in John the Baptist, now in the Capitoline Gallery in Rome. But potentially the most exciting is the presence of Cecco as David in the David with the Head of Goliath in the Borghese Gallery.
Cecco as David
As we saw earlier the unusual conception of the David and Goliath theme has been related to Caravaggio’s inner conflict at the time. He was hiding in Paliano, to the south-east of Rome, immediately after the killing of Ranuccio Tomassoni. David and the Head of Goliath contains an implicit plea for mercy from the papal nephew Scipione Borghese, for whom the painting was intended. Can an obvious affinity be detected in the conception of the Death of Hyacinth; the similar expressions of serenity of both David and of the Apollo of our Death, and the apparent resignation with which they observe their ‘victims’? Our protagonist painter and his apprentice Cecco had shared the same house, and probably shared the same room as well just before the 1606 match was played. This house was situated one block away from the ill-fated pallacorda court (vicolo di S. Biagio), only separated from it by Palazzo Firenze. As a boy Cecco accompanied his master when he roamed the streets of Rome and went from one tavern to another, perhaps occasionally playing tennis together.
The Two Death of Hyacinth Paintings
Gianni Papi’s Cecco del Caravaggio publication proves to be a large, folio-size volume in a neat card-board box. The text Papi dedicates to the Death of Hyacinth is relatively brief. It contains a surprise for me, however. It turns out that the author has not attributed the Death to Cecco, but to a painter very close to this artist, the mysterious Maestro dell’Incredulità di San Tommaso (Master of the Incredulity of St. Thomas). According to Papi this Maestro may well be identified as the Flemish painter Jean Ducamps. When comparing the two Death of Hyacinth portraits included in Papi’s book, some minor differences in the colouring and lighting can be detected. The hyacinth between the protagonists’ feet is hardly visible, in the Sotheby painting for example, nor are the two rackets. The Cherbourg version has a clearer texture in the bottom section. The Sotheby portrait requires cleaning and restoration. The Cherbourg painting was restored about twenty years ago. A restorer recently established that the picture’s background had faded, to which hardly anything could be done. The Sotheby photo shows some superficial damage on the canvas, white scrapings along the sides. Papi regards the latter painting as the optimal version, the Cherbourg as a ‘replica’.
Mina Gregori’s attribution to Cecco del Caravaggio is completely unexpected. What is it that makes such a renowned Caravaggio and caravaggist expert as Mina Gregori ascribe our Death of Hyacinth to Cecco del Carvavaggio? Her interpretation is based on a good-quality photo of the Cherbourg portrait that I delivered personally to her home address in Florence. The only plausible explanation I can give is that she has not actually consulted Papi’s volume, but had just come to know that the Death of Hyacinth I had inquired about featured in the Cecco del Caravaggio monograph. I may only assume that she concluded from this that it must have been a work by Cecco, an attribution she obviously found feasible.
Who better than his favourite model and companion, Cecco del Caravaggio, to portray Caravaggio as an unfortunate tennis player in an attempt to exonerate his master’s act of violence? What a fascinating trail to follow, completely unexplored.