Giambattista Tiepolo: Tennis with Apollo

This article is part of our Italian Week on Tennis Buzz.

One of the most striking early references to the game of tennis appears in a painting by Giambattista Tiepolo entitled The Death of Hyacinth (1752) in which a strung raquet and three tennis balls are depicted.

The Death of Hyacinth

According to tradition, the greek God Apollo, in a sporting competition with his lover, injured him fatally with a discus. A German ruler and connoisseur of fine art, Count Wilhelm Friedrich Schaumburg Lippe, commissioned an unusual rendering of the story from the Venetian artist Tiepolo.
The painting suggests that Apollo’s lover Hyacynth fell victim, not to a discus, but to a tennis ball.

In the foreground of the painting, next to Hyacinth’s corpse, are two innocuous-looking balls and a racket, while the net hangs slackly in the background. The fatal ball by which Hyacinth was struck in the temple, lies prominently on the tiled floor of the tennis court in the foreground.

The Death of Hyacinth

Tennis balls were not soft and elastic, but made of leather and filled with wool, hair or even sand. They were hard and rather dangerous, and frequently the cause of injury or even, on occasion, death.
In 1751, Frederick Prince of Wales was hit so badly in the stomach by a tennis ball that he died of internal bleeding.
Count Wilhelm, who maintained close relations with the English royal family, would naturally have heard the news.

Tiepolo’s painting, displayed at the Museo Thyssen Bornemisza in Madrid.

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