Tennis in Belgium

It is generally accepted that the 15th-century Burgundian court served as a model for the early modern courts of Europe. Recreation and entertainment were essential features in the life at court of the great Burgundian dukes Philip the Good and Charles the Bold. Information about the way the Burgundian dukes played is very sparse, but we do know that it was common practice for them to play for a wager upon the outcome of a match.

Philip’s and Charles’account books frequently mention expenses for playing jeu de paume or caetspel, expenses sometimes even exceeding an average labourer’s annual wages. The dukes possessed tennis courts at virtually all their major palaces: The Temple in Paris, Dijon, Bruges, Ghent and in the garden of the Château de la Riviere. The first reference to the construction of a tennis court we find at the Prinsenhof in Bruges (1453-1454).

Two open tennis courts are visible in the background of a Prinsenhof engraving of 1640 (see photo below).

Prinsenhof Place in Bruges (1640), with 
two open tennis courts in the background
Prinsenhof Place in Bruges (1640), with two open tennis courts in the background

Sala dei Giganti, Emperor Charles V was a keen tennis player. Several of the matches he played against other Renaissance rulers were witnessed by contemporary writers. In 1522 the emperor played King Henry VIII at Bridewell Palace. The Palazzo Te in Mantua was the venue of another famous match Charles played, this time against Federico Gonzaga, who had just been made Duke by the emperor. For the occasion a unique architectural link was established between the palace’s recently built tennis court at Palazzo Te and the Sala dei Giganti, one of the most famous frescoed rooms of the Renaissance.

Sala dei Giganti
Sala dei Giganti

The frescoes by Giulio Romano were inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and described the battle between the Olympians, led by Charles V as Jupiter (see photo), and the Giants. The Sala dei Giganti incorporated an acoustic element which linked it directly to the tennis court next door. When the visitor admired the frescoes, he could hear the sound of the balls bouncing off the walls and rolling over the wooden penthouses during a match, which created a dramatic effect.

The garden of Charles’ Coudenberg Palace in Brussels included a tennis court, as testified by Antonio de Beatis in 1517. The description in his diary reads:

“.. it is a fine tennis court surrounded by sloping roofs and beneath these and over the roofs – for the game is played in a sunken area – large numbers of spectators can watch the game. They use rackets and play very well”.
Towards the end of Charles’ reign a fascinating painting was created which features a tennis court which bears a great resemblance to Beatis’ description. The 1540 painting (see photo, detail????), by Lucas Gassel of Helmond, is known as the Landscape with David and Bathsheba and portrays the emperor’s main palace and its extensive gardens as a perfect setting to engage in a game of tennis and a variety of other courtly pastimes. The inclusion of a tennis court may be seen as proof of the popularity of the game in court circles, especially by the emperor, but it also has an allegorical meaning.

The principal literary source of inspiration for the painting were the writings of Antonio de Guevara, in particular his Del Menosprecio de la corte y alabanzade la aldea (A Dispraise of the Life of a Courtier), published in 1539, one year before Gassel’s production of the painting with the tennis court. Guevara served Charles V as preacher and chronicler. On the one hand the Menosprecio is a eulogy of country life with all its simple pleasures, on the other it is a bitter attack on the machinations at court. On several occasions Guevara alludes to the potentially corruptive qualities of tennis in his writings, especially if it involved money.

David and Bathsheba Painting
David and Bathsheba Painting

At the end of his preface to the Menosprecio refers to the adultery of David and Bathsheba, as described in the bible. Gassel probably included the maze and the tennis court in his David and Bathsheba painting as tempting symbols of courtly pleasures easier to enter than to escape. The subject obviously appealed to the nobility, because between 1540-1560 about twelve copies were made at Gassel’s workshop of the original, all very similar in their lay-out and all including an open tennis court.

Royal Tennis Courts (Caetspele) in Belgium

Tennis was played by all members of the Belgian society. Professor R. Van Passen’s survey of caetspele in Antwerp (Naamkunde 20 and 21, 1988,1989) shows Antwerp had 30 tennis courts in the 16th century. The game was particularly popular among the aristocracy. Here follows a list of the courts that cropped up in archival documents, partly based on the menu plaisir (Privy Purse) of Philippe de Lalaing of 1577, Count of Hoogstraten (preserved at the Archives Municipal in Douai):

Antwerp

  • Hoogstraten Castle, near Antwerp, De Lalaing played here with Lodewijk van Nassau, William of Orange’s brother. Hoogstraten was completely transformed and now serves as a penitentiary institute.

Brussels

  • Egmont Palace, Brussels, where De Lalaing played with Monsr. de Hatrecht, against the Duke of Arschot and against Ruissardes, losing 18 livres. Only a part of this palace has retained its original style. De Lalaing also played with the Count of Bossu, at a covered tennis court near the Sablon (Zavel) church, which is either the court at Egmont Palace, or at Turn und Taxis Palace, which also featured a tennis court.
  • Nassau Palace, Brussels, where according to the 1568 inventory of William of Orange, he had a tennis court (jeu de palme, sic) near the tower of the palace, the racquettes were kept in the secretary’s room. Nassau Palace, after major refurbisments, now serves as the Royal Archives and Library. A Brussels plan of 1711 (see photo) shows the Coudenberg Palace (no. 1), as well as the nearby Egmont (22), Turn und Taxis (20) and Nassau (13) palaces.
  • Plan of Brussels (1711)
    Plan of Brussels (1711)
  • Coudenberg Palace, Brussels, had three Jeux de Paume, Charles’court in the gardens, a court at Borgerhout and in 1588 Alessandro Farnese (Parma) had a tennis court built for 9,000 pounds, which is partly visible on the far right in an interpretation by Lucas Vorstermans of 1659. Coudenberg Palace burnt down in 1731, new Royal Palace was built on virtually the same site.
Coudenberg Palace
Coudenberg Palace
Part of the tennis court is visible on the far right.

Antwerp

  • Prinsenhof (former St. Michielsabdij) in Antwerp, built for the Duke of Anjou in 1582

Ghent

  • Gravensteen Palace, Ghent
  • Château Ath

Sources: Baron Albert van Zuylen van Nyevelt. Jean-Michel Mehl, A. Smolart Meynart

Nederlandse Real Tennis Bond
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