Giambattista Tiepolo

Real Tennis history in Europe

Tiepolo's Tennis Playing God Apollo

Giambattista Tiepolo's The Death of Hyacinth (1752-1753) painting can be seen as the most intriguing work of tennis art ever produced in the long history of the game. A first view of the large canvas (287 x 232 cm) in Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum will probably leave the visitor puzzled. The classical setting of the painting catches the viewer off guard. Was tennis really played in the Antiquity? We need an insight into Tiepolo's creative mind before we can comprehend the symbolism of the painting's mythological tennis match.

The Death of Hyacinth© Museo Thyssen Bornemisza

The Death of Hyacinth

In the painting Tiepolo, the last great painter of the famous Venetian School, immortalised Ovid's mythological love affair between the God Apollo and the Spartan prince Hyacinth. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book X), a Latin poem exploring change and transformation in the natural world, Apollo and Hyacinth are practising their skills at discus throwing. Apollo hurled the discus with such immense force that it accidentally struck Hyacinth, who was trying to retrieve it. But we do not see a discus near Hyacinth's body as it lies mortally wounded in the foreground of Tiepolo's impressive canvas. We do see an imposing racket, three tennis balls and a drooping net in the middle, however. The fatal ball by which Hyacinth was struck in the temple, lies prominently on the tiled floor of the tennis court in the foreground. Why did Tiepolo choose to transform Ovid's ancient discus game between Apollo and Hyacinth, into a passionate game of tennis between the two lovers?

Tiepolo's German Patron

Tiepolo's The Death of Hyacinth was commissioned in 1752 by Wilhelm Friedrich Schaumburg-Lippe. The German count was a particularly keen tennis player. The painting's genesis may also be partly attributed to the death of Wilhelm's grandfather in 1727, after an exhausting game at the family's tennis court (Ballhaus) of their Bückeburg Castle. Another reason must have been the unfortunate death of Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1751, having been hit by a tennis ball.

The main motivation for Tiepolo to include a tennis match between two lovers, however, is likely to have been the death of Wilhelm's intimate musician friend in Venice, who the count's father in a letter referred to as "your friend Apollo". The two lovers must have regularly played each other at tennis during Wilhelm's frequent visits to Venice. These examples of passionate aristocratic tennis play make clear that Tiepolo had partly projected his The Death of Hyacinth painting to reflect the renaissance the game of tennis experienced during the mid-eighteenth century, a phenomenon particularly manifest in Venice.

But Tiepolo's painting should be mainly seen as an appropriate eulogy to the game of tennis at the zenith of its popularity: in the second half of the sixteenth century the game of pallacorda was the most popular physical exercise practised at court. Tiepolo was clearly inspired by a Metamorphoses translation, incorporating a long account of a tennis match, which came out in 1561. It was a great publishing success and had several new editions in Tiepolo's time.

Anguillara's Metamorfosi

By placing the leading physical exercise practised at court in a classical setting, one notable humanist author in particular tried to gain status for his work among secular and ecclesiastical princes who had shown a preference for the game of tennis. Giovanni Andrea dell'Anguillara's Italian translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses can be regarded as a striking testimony of the prestige the game of tennis generated in mid-sixteenth century court circles.

Anguillara in Le Metamorfosi di Ovidio di Gio (Venice 1561) had transformed Ovid's original episode with the ancient discus into a tennis game, employed to emphasise the game's princely status. He dedicated a long discourse to the vigorous racchetta match between Apollo and Hyacinth and used a wide range of allegorical allusions on how the game evolved. The humanist writers tried to outshine both their contemporary rivals and the masters of Antiquity.

Anguillara's introduction of a racchetta match must have charmed the Renaissance princes he had served during the ten years his Metamorfosi took to be completed. The French Kings Henry II and Charles IX, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Duke Cosimo I de' Medici and Duke Alfonso II d'Este could all be counted among the most passionate converts of the game.

Charles IX of France, with racket1552, drawing attributed to Jean Clouet.

Anguillara's Tennis Match

Anguillara starts his account with a description of the racchetta court, with its black walls (so that the white balls could be seen better during play), and galleries along two of its walls. He proceeds by providing a vivid description of the action on court (stanzas 77-85). The fatal accident occurs when Apollo swings his racket for a decisive point and his ball hits Hyacinth in the temple (86). The next stanzas reflect Apollo's feelings of gran dolor, eventually culminating in the dramatic transformation that is the Metamorphoses' main theme: transformation.

Tiepolo has truthfully copied the metamorphoses, as the hyacinths next to the Spartan prince's lifeless body are gradually turning purple from the blood of the dying youth. But just as in Anguillara's Metamorfosi, another metamorphosis is emerging in Tiepolo's representation: the ill-fated scene of the accident, the tennis court – with its tiled floor in the foreground, its characteristic penthouse and gallery on the left, the slack net in the middle – is slowly being transformed into a large ivy-clad garden, as if passed down from Antiquity. The parrot and Pan on the right of Tiepolo's painting, and the long-bearded, sombre-looking mythological figures on the left, add a distinct moralising dimension to the forbidden love affair as well as to the fun-filled games Apollo and Hyacinth were engaged in.

Tiepolo's representation of a sixteenth century racchetta match between the Sun God Apollo and his Spartan prince should thus be seen as the ultimate tribute to the game's royal pedigree: The Game of Kings, The King of Games. Besides Tiepolo has made another significant contribution to the history of art. Next to the muscular Hyacinth, the embodiment of the classical sportsman, lies the most beautifully-styled tennis racket in the annals of the sport.

For the colour version of Tiepolo's The Death of Hyacinth, surf to Museo Thyssen Bornemisza virtual visit site. The painting can be admired on the second floor, room 17.

The open tennis court at Madrid's Buen Retiro Palace, visible just above the trees in the foreground.