Tennis at the Italian Renaissance Court (1450 - 1550)

  • Some facts:
    • The first indoor tennis court : c. 1457 at the Este Villa of Belriguardo
    • The first tennis professionals: c. 1465, employed by the Sforzas of Milan
    • The first tennis net (or cord) : before 1490, pallacorda owned by the Medici of Florence
    • The first description of the game of tennis: 1510, in a book dedicated to Pope Julius II

Gianni Clerici, in his The Ultimate Tennis Book. 500 Years of the Sport (1976), was the first tennis historian to delve into the history of the game in Italy. In his chapter on Renaissance tennis Clerici also briefly touched on Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza's (1444-1476) passion for tennis. Recently much more archival material has become available (in Gregory Lubkin's A Renaissance Court. Milan under Galeazzo Maria Sforza, 1994) on Galeazzo Maria's tennis and the Duke, one of the most powerful and extravagant rulers of his age, can rightfully be called the first patron of tennis. The written record of young Galeazzo's first game of tennis is in a letter he wrote to his father Francesco Sforza on 2 August 1457 from the Este villa of Belriguardo. The text of the letter implies that it may have been an indoor court - probably built under Borso d'Este - as Galeazzo wrote that he had been playing tennis and cards because it had been raining. During Galeazzo's reign tennis became the main gambling sport at court when between 1472-1474 he had the first tennis court of his own built at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan.

It was to be the greatest tennis hall to date, with an appropriate name, the Sala della Balla. The most revealing information about tennis at the Sforza court comes from letters that ambassadors sent to their principals, especially to Mantua (the Gonzaga dynasty), Florence (Medici) and Ferrara (Este).

Italian students playing Tennis (Padua, 1610) ©Peter Wordie
Italian students playing Tennis (Padua, 1610) ┬ęPeter Wordie

In various letters in May 1472 the Mantova Ambassador to Milan informed his patron Ludovico Gonzaga about Galeazzo's enthusiasm for the game of tennis or gioco della palla and about the exhibition matches played by his tennis professionals. Time and again, however, the ambassador was puzzled by the heavy gambling stakes which the Duke placed on the outcome of the tennis matches. By employing a wide range of recreational personnel - tennisplayers, musicians and huntsmen - Galeazzo sought to enhance his prestige. A victory by his best tennis pro, El Maystreto, over a rival from another court was experienced as a personal triumph.

The Duke took it for granted that the foreign dignitaries in the spectator galleries who were fortunate enough to be invited to this spectacular form of private court entertainment, would be quite impressed. Galeazzo had gathered the best tennis pros from other Italian courts and demanded top-class performances from them. When in 1573 one of his best players, Arcangelo da Colli, failed to beat his opponent from the Urbino court, he was immediately dismissed. The winner of this dramatic exhibition match was engaged in his place, just before he was to return to the Montefeltro court. The exact dimonsions of Galeazzo's Sala della Balla are not known. A plan of Federigo da Montefeltro's tennis court at the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, however, based on an eyewitness report from 1480, shows that his gioco della palla was 22 by 7.5 metres. The plan also features the characteristic gallery alongside the court from which the spectators could watch play.

By 1490 a new term for the game of tennis started to crop up in Italian documents: gioco della pallacorda or sometimes just pallacorda. The name provides us with a fascinating clue and may even be regarded as compelling evidence that the first tennis net (actually a cord at first ), dividing the service and the receiving sides, originated in Italy. According to the humanist Paolo Cortesi, in his De Cardinalatu (1510), a Latin encyclopedia of courtly manners, a pallacorda (funarium) had to be included in the layout of the main secular as well as ecclesiastical palaces and villas. In his brief description of the game of tennis Cortesi uses two terms - the aula and the triclinium - to distinguish two types of tennis court: the former being a more or less purpose - built tennis court, the latter any suitably sized room that could easily be converted into a basic tennis court. Noster Papa, Cortesi's patron, Pope Julius II, advocated pallacorda as the most rewarding of all ballgames. Tennis was to become the most popular princely pastime (apart from hunting) at the Italian courts of the 16th century. The first record of the term 'corda' for a game of tennis we owe to Cortesi as well. It can be found in a letter from 1490 which informs us that the young writer was involved in an interesting tennis match when he spent some time at the Medici court in Florence to study the grand life-style of Lorenzo the Magnificent. His own Roman team played a Florentine partnership of Piero de Medici, Lorenzo's son. The losers of the Roman-Florentine match were to pay 25 ducati to the winners.

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