The Literary Apollo and Hyacinth Component

Caravaggio Blog

I am confident to have passed the stage of just grasping at straws. I now know what buttons to press, in my tennis poetry search at least.

Pursuing the literary component further through a digital search on ‘Apollo e Giacinto’, in combination with ‘racchetta’, I find that the period 1614-1625 produced a surprising number of Apollo and Hyacinth tennis descriptions. A poet crucial to the development of early seventeenth-century Italian poetry, Giambattista Marino, was instrumental in promoting the ball-related theme. The lives of Caravaggio and the poet are closely interwoven, the painter even made a portrait of Marino. The two were similar characters of the more aggressively violent sort. Both set out to Rome early in their careers to make their fortunes. By admiring the ingenuity of Caravaggio’s art, Marino became aware of the possibilities the visual arts offered, and began to interpret pictures as a form of silent poetry. I begin to wonder if it was actually Marino who came into possession of the painting of our inquiry, because the poet happens to refer to a Death of Hyacinth painting in one of his works on art.

Giambattista Marino, by Caravaggio.

The racchetta contest between Apollo and Hyacinth in Marino’s l’Adone proves to derive mainly from Anguillara’s Metamorfosi interpretation of the original Ovid text. As we have seen, this was the textual source for Tiepolo’s Death as well as for the Savigliano fresco, with the metamorphosis of a tennis court into an ancient garden. Marino employs a variety of allusions to the match, the build-up, the outfits of the two players and the way their rackets are strung. When the reader is finally drawn into the action on the tennis court during the decisive stage, Marino changes the setting of the match, a crudo disco enters the description, the ball having vanished from the scene completely. It is the discus that had been responsible for Hyacinth’s death in Marino’s tennis account. No discus in sight in our painting, just two rackets. For this reason we may well assume that Marino’s l’Adone tennis match did not serve as the literary source for our Death. Marino as a possible textual source for The Death turns out to be a dead-end, but I am not yet totally stranded.

Marino’s La Galeria (1619)

La Galeria (1619) contains over 600 poems, mostly madrigals and sonnets. When it appeared it was without the engravings the poet had promised to incorporate. They were supposed to be the basis of a museum Marino had in mind. In the light of our inquiry we now focus on the poem with the evocative title: Apollo che piange Giacinto (Apollo Who Bemoans Hyacinth) di Lionello Spada. The poem briefly describes Hyacinth’s suffering after being hit by the discus. Marino’s poem is of a very general nature and does not make clear that it may in any way be interpreted as the literary basis of the painting under review. There is no racket mentioned in the poem, just a ‘disco’. Alessandra Ruffini in her modern edition of La Galeria tries to link Marino’s Apollo che piange Giacinto text to existing paintings. She identifies the Cherbourg Death of Hyacinth as the most obvious choice for Marino’s poem. The painting is tentatively included in the volume as it wonderfully mirrors Marino’s ingenious spirit, full of drama and emotion. The painting does not seem to correspond with Spada’s style, Ruffini adds, but I sense that she does not rule out that Apollo che piange Giacinto is one and the same as Cherbourg’s Death.

Marino’s Art Collection

Marino’s La Galeria is generally considered an unreliable source to reconstruct the poet’s art treasures. It should be seen as an anthology of poems, rather than of actual paintings. Spada’s Apollo che piange Giacinto poem which Marino had included in his La Galeria shows that the theme occupied his mind at the time. It is of significance in the context of our inquiry that Spada was a painter of some fame who may have known Caravaggio personally and tried to emulate his work after his hero’s death. Sufficient motivation to delve a little deeper. Giorgio Fulco in an elaborate essay included in the compilation of his studies on the Baroque and the interaction between poetry and the arts, La ‘Meravigliosa’ Passione (The Marvellous Passion, 1980), provides an authoritative reconstruction of Marino’s collection of art. Many pictures mentioned in his La Galeria must have been solicited and acknowledged in letters that are now lost, I gather. In his essay Fulco proves to be puzzled not to find a record of Caravaggio’s Medusa and of his Susannah, which the poet claimed to have possessed. Did Marino acquire them directly from the painter, without a written record, the author wonders. The essay features a list of Marino’s estate on his death in 1625 which is based on notary records. There is no trace in his estate of anything that looks like a portrait unifying Apollo and Hyacinth.

We have entered the shadowy world of speculation and hypothesis. Long shots have been all I can come up with, up to now. I need to think in straight lines, but the subject also requires an unconventional mind. My research into the identity of The Death of Hyacinth has so far been marked by all the features the volatile character of our protagonist Caravaggio displayed during his lifetime.

It is then that I stumble on another textual Death of Hyacinth source with a tennis account, which may well turn out to be a breakthrough in my research. It was written by one of Marino’s literary colleagues, or rivals, actually.