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