The traditional Neapolitan ball game Palla a bracciale was extremely popular in the eighteenth century. Eight players divided into two teams attempted to hit a ball thrown at them with their underarm, which was protected by a large wooden bracer (hence the name of the game). Visible in the picture is a yellow and a red team, each member wearing a bracer; two further men, recognisable through their white and green outfits, are pumping air into balls and bowling them to the players. The sport is often compared with modern cricket, and another picture of the game, depicted from outside the fence, by Pietro Fabris, signed and dated 1768, is now at the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord's, London (see R. Middione, op. cit., 1995, fig. 45).
Joli must have depicted a specific game of importance to the Bourbon Court, for visible on the pitch, surrounded by his ministers, is King Ferdinand IV, recognisable by the order of the Golden Fleece, wearing a hat and with a stick in his left hand. To his left the aged Bernardo Tanucci is recognisable through his slight hunch; the head of the Consiglio di Reggenza when Ferdinand was a boy and later Secretary of State (1768-1776), like the King and with other members of the courtiers, he wears the sash of the Order of San Gennaro. In the centre of one of the stands, Queen Caroline is seated with her retinue of ladies and a few gentiluomini. The stand at the other end of the ground is reserved for the orchestra.
The King's love of the sport, of which he was himself a keen player, is recorded by the Emperor Joseph II, Queen Caroline's brother, in his account to their mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, of life at the Court: in April 1769, at portici during a walk 'we arrived at a ground where they were playing palla [a bracciale]. The King took off his coat, rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and played together with eight men amongst whom were bodyguards, valets and beggers' (see Cortelazzara, Relazione a Maria Teresa sui Reali di Napoli, ed. E. Grams-Cornides, Naples, 1992, p. 37). The Emperor described another occasion in which a game of palla a bracciale was the setting for a diplomatic dispute with a representative of the Florentine court (H. Acton, I Borboni di Napoli, Milan, 1964, pp. 136-37).
It is likely that Joli's picture shows the same game as that depicted by Pietro Fabris. 1768 was the year of the wedding of the King to the then Archduchess Carolina, and this game could well have been part of the several-months-long nuptial celebrations. After the wedding in Vienna, 7 April 1768, the young Queen arrived in Naples on 22 April, accompanied by her brother and the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. The festivities also included a recital of Le Nozze di Peleo e Teti at the Teatro San Carlo, for which Joli painted the stage set.
The ground for the game was set up by the city wall erected by Ferdinand of Aragon in 1484. One of its towers, the Torre di San Michele (at the far right) was at the time a part of the Convento della Purificazione a San Gioacchino (later the Caserma Garibaldi); the nuns are visible crowding on the top of the tower to catch a glimpse of the game. Another tower, La Sirena, is visible behind this. The carriage of some grandee is just crossing the moat over the Ponte Nuovo; in the background is the cupola of the Church of Sant'Anna a Capuana. Both the bridge and the palazzi at the other side of the moat, on which many spectators found a free seat, made way in the nineteenth century for new buildings.
The importance of the occasion depicted is suggested by the existence of a replica from the Austrian Imperial collections, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Another autograph version is in the Museo di San Martino, Naples.