The Fine Art of Tennis

“A learned gentleman should have a goodly, huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity, chance and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature has wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included”
Francis Bacon, Gesta Grayorum (1595)

Collectors would keep their smaller prized possessions in a small ante-room, chamber or ‘cabinet’. Such spaces tended to be packed – rather than arranged – with paintings, objets d’art and natural curiosities. As much as pleasing aesthetic sensibilities, such collections would stimulate intellectual curiosity. Frans Francken the Younger is credited with devising the ‘cabinet painting’ – a genre which, in effect, showcases the showcase.

‘Cabinet of a Collector’ (1617) by Frans Francken the Younger

Looking at Francken’s Cabinet of a Collector, examine the right panel and then focus beneath the arch: in the background, a church is destroyed; nearby, donkey-headed thugs cudgel items identified with learning, Science, The Arts – and finally, Sport. If you look closely at the foreground, a tennis racket and balls are in plain view.

The episodes depicted here recall two historical events: the Beeldenstorm – an iconoclastic rampage by Protestants in 1566 – and the 1576 sack of Antwerp: the ‘Spanish Fury’. In Het Schilder-Boeck (1604), Karel van Mander identifies the image of the donkey-heads as symbolising Ignorance; for Francken, the sin of the donkey-heads is not sacrilege, or violence, but stupidity. As Friedrich von Schiller (1759 – 1805) would later observe, ‘Against stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in vain’.

Rackets also feature in Jan Brueghel’s The Vanity of Human Life:

In ‘Europe’ from Jan van Kessel’s The Four Continents (1664): we see a period racket and balls – together with gold and silver coins. By this point, gambling had become synonymous with tennis.

The Death of Hyacinthus (oil on canvas), 17th Century Italian School, after Caravaggio, Musee d’Art Thomas Henry, Cherbourg, France

The Death of Hyacinthus

According to legend, Hyacinthus was a beautiful boy loved by the god Apollo – and also Zephyr, the west wind. Apollo and Hyacinthus were at play, taking turns with a discus when Zephyr, enraged with jealousy blew Apollo’s discus off-course, whereupon it struck and killed Hyacinthus. Refusing to allow Hades to claim the boy, Apollo created a flower from Hyacinthus’s spilled blood; the grief-stricken Apollo’s tears stain the flower’s petals with άί άί‘alas’.

In 1581, Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses anew, transforming the fatal discus game between Apollo and Hyacinthus into tennis, or ‘racchetta’. It was printed in Venice, in quarto format.

In this portrait, Apollo tenderly holds the body of his slain lover. Note also the tennis racket at their feet. Stylistically this work is clearly un hommage to Caravaggio; given Tomassoni’s death at Caravaggio’s hand – following a tennis match – it’s hard not to see it as a reference to what, at the time of painting, would have been a contentious contemporary event.

A century later (1752–1753), Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo revisited The Death of Hyacinthus following a commission from Count Wilhelm Friedrich von Schaumburg-Lippe. It would become one of Art’s most detailed early portrayals of tennis.

There was a tennis court at Schloss Bückeburg, the von Schaumburg-Lippe family seat and Wilhelm was a celebrated player. A close friend confirmed to his father the young Wilhelm’s ability: “His unusual strength and adroit mastery of the game of tennis have … contributed much to the astonishment, approval and renown which he is accorded everywhere, and, indeed, have induced both the imperial majesties to watch and applaud his game …”. The young Count took as his cook and manservant a “Marqueur” – a tennis coach who would act as ball-boy, opponent, umpire and court caretaker. Marqueurs were also responsible for collecting wagers taken before a tennis matches.

One account has the Royal family beseeching the then 22 year-old Count to await the King’s arrival in Dresden, in order that the monarch might enjoy a contest against a worthy adversary. The Count, though, demurred:

“I am told he is an excellent player, but I am sure you will understand that Festetics comes before all the Kings in the World” – Count Wilhelm Friedrich von Schaumburg-Lippe (alluding here to his Hungarian friend, Festetics)

It’s documented that Wilhelm played in Venice circa 1747, enjoying the dissipated lifestyle of a gentleman of quality. The young Count evidently gained a number of influential Venetian friends: the powerful Grimani family dedicated a Carnival opera in his honour. It’s likely also, that he became acquainted with Tiepolo whilst here.

At the time of commissioning Tiepolo, Count Wilhelm had just lost an ‘intimate friend’ (disparagingly described – somewhat tellingly – by his disapproving father as “your friend Apollo”). The painting’s thematic choice, then – a legendary single-sex relationship – becomes more easily understood.

In Tiepolo’s masterpiece, we see Hyacinthus mortally wounded, his outstretched foot still in contact with the court’s tiled floor. A racket and balls are in plain view – and, between the grief-stricken Apollo and assembled onlookers, the characteristic, sagging net. Note too, the chillingly malevolent sneer of the Satyr/Pan figure standing over the stricken lovers.

Wilhelm was a young man when he commissioned Tiepolo to create a portrait which must have long served a painful reminder of lost love. On dying, aged 53, in 1777, Wilhelm was succeeded by his nephew. It is surely no coincidence that the young man entrusted with administering Wilhelm’s estate bore the name Hyazinthus.

For an erudite and extensively-researched account of the Count’s life, the commissioning of this artwork and its symbolism, see Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen’s outstanding treatise History of Art



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