Tennis at the Italian Court (1550 - 1600)

Until the year 1555 the rules of ballgames were passed on orally. It can be taken for granted that their interpretation occasionally caused heated arguments. Not in the least when money had been put on the outcome of the match. It was essential that play was regulated. In 1555 a young theologian at the court of Ferrara, Antonio Scaino, published a manual on how the various ballgames were to be played in a refined, courtly manner. His Trattato del Giuoco della Palla includes a comprehensive account of the game of tennis (giuoco della corda) and the publication was dedicated to Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. Scaino never fails to emphasise what his Most Illustrious Prince's favourite ballgame was: palla a corda, either played with a racket or with the bare hand.

The Open Tennis Court at the Villa d'Este, on the right (1573
The Open Tennis Court at the Villa d'Este, on the right (1573

In Scaino's days there were separate tennis tournaments played for the two categories, so we read in the Trattato. The Italians and Spaniards played mainly with their bare hands. The French champions mentioned by Scaino, Verdelôt and Laches, struck the ball with a racket. Scaino's book was to spark a genuine boost of interest at all the Italian courts as well as among the urban elite. The aristocracy were eager to adopt the new regulations. In this way they could draw a line between themselves and the lower orders who played ballgames in the streets. The princely tennis courts were increasingly regulated in their layout. The disorderly was made orderly; the aristocracy had created a wonderful elitist recreation.

The different diagrams of tennis courts in Scaino's book make clear that there were two major types:

  1. The Jeu Quarre, the older category with galleries along two of the walls, where the players played with the bare hand or with a simple paleta, and
  2. The Jeu a Dedans, the larger court with three galleries, where tennis was played with a racket.

Of the two types the smaller court with the two galleries was the more popular in Italy until about 1580. This preference may well be attributed to the fact that, as far is now known, the racket came into vogue in Italy at a later stage than in, for example, France. This was probably the reason why Scaino chose the Louvre tennis court as the best example of the Jeu a Dedans variety and had included a plan of this major court in his treatise. According to Scaino the Louvre tennis court was built in the grand architectural style worthy of a king. He does not identify the architect involved, but it is not unlikely that the Louvre tennis court plan in his book was inspired by Sebastiano Serlio.

The Medici Villa of Poggio a Caiano with the Pallacorda building 
			on the left (dates from 1543)
The Medici Villa of Poggio a Caiano with the Pallacorda building on the left (dates from 1543)

In 1540 King Francis I of France had employed Serlio's services especially to advise on the Louvre renovation project. The second of Serlio's Libro VI manuscripts includes two tennis courts for the Louvre design. Serlio was the leading North Italian architect of his time, and he had a close relationship with Duke Alfonso II d'Este's predecessor, Ercole II. The second French project featuring a tennis court (of the jeu ´ dedans type) which Serlio was involved in was Le Grand Ferrara, Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este's (ErcoleII's brother) classical residence in Fontainebleau. In 1571 Ippolito had written his nephew Alfonso, the commissioner of Scaino's book, informing him that he was to create a tennis court alla francese (= jeu ´ dedans) at his Villa d'Este in Tivoli and that he would appreciate to have the Duke's advice on how to arrange the galleries alongside the walls of the court.

The period 1560-1580 saw a flurry of princely tennis court construction. Renaissance princes constantly sought to outshine each other in all forms of recreational facilities, also in the field of tennis court building. Ippolito's arch-rival to the papal throne, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, commissioned the famous architect Vignola with the erection of a beautiful 'pallacorda' at his favourite Villa Farnese in Caprarola, not far from Tivoli. Alfonso II d'Este had a 'pallacorda' built at both the Belfiore and the Belvedere villa, whereas he could still play a game at Belriguardo, the court where young Galeazzo Maria Sforza played as early as 1457. Another convert to the game, Grandduke Cosimo I de Medici, had tennis courts (called pallatoio in Tuscany) erected at the Palazzo Pitti and at his Villa at Poggio a Caiano. The building still stands in the north-east corner of the villa gardens. Although the interior is not in its original state, this 'pallacorda' building is the only Renaissance tennis monument that has survived in Italy. For the rest only the name pallacorda remains in present-day streetnames, a clear indication of how popular the game of tennis used to be.

Photo of Pallacorda in the Gardens of Poggio a Caiano (1999)
Photo of Pallacorda in the Gardens of Poggio a Caiano (1999)
Nederlandse Real Tennis Bond