Jeu de Paume (France)

The fact that France was the new playground of the High Renaissance architectural style, must have prompted Sebastiano Serlio to serve King Francis I as his architectural adviser in 1540. But France also played a pioneering role in the development of the game of tennis. Had Scaino not included a plan of the Louvre Jeu à Dedans court, as there was no such a "major" tennis court to be found in Italy? Magnificence and luxury in architecture was a popular topic among French humanist educators. Some of them, Rabelais in particular, also gave their views on the role recreational facilities played in the planning of royal residences.

In his major work, Gargantua from 1534, Rabelais devoted the last seven chapters to the celebrated description of the Abbey of Thélème, the ultimate Utopian pleasure dome. Brilliant humorist that he was, Rabelais ridiculed the excessive luxury of the Thélème theme, a palace a hundred times more sumptuous than any other Renaissance château. The three-tier construction was packed with luxuries such as swimming pools and theatres, all for the recreation of its fortunate inhabitants. There were pleasure gardens disposed around the main building, equipped with courts for the game of tennis, jeu de ballon (or pallone) and there were a tilt yard and a riding ring. Rabelais' views on material splendour certainly fell on deaf ears with Francis I, since he became the prime example of the Renaissance king who regarded architecture as the ultimate form of monarchic display. His reign marked an outburst of architectural activity in the Loire valley and in the Ile de France where new palaces were built, the majority of which were fitted with a Jeu de Paume. As to the construction of tennis courts Francis I sought to outshine all his princely rivals, particularly Henry VIII of England. By 1530 Henry VIII, a recent convert of the royal game, had "tennis plays" erected at four of his favourite palaces: Greenwich, St James's, Hampton Court and Whitehall. The most pretentious leisure complex, with tilt yards, cockfighting pits and bowling alleys, was Henry's Whitehall Palace in London. At this "Largest Palace of Christendom" as many as five open and closed tennis courts could be found, built not only for Henry himself, but also to keep his courtiers engaged.

Château Blois
Château Blois
The Two Tennis Courts (Jeu de Paume) in the gardens of Château Blois (Du Cerceau, 1576 - 1579)

Our best source of information on the role the tennis court played in the organisation of Renaissance palaces and villas is Jacques Androuet du Cerceau's Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France. The Valois Kings Francois I and Henry II claimed that through the publication of this impressive pictorial work, the power of the House of Valois would be immortalised. In his drawings the celebrated French architect and engraver has zoomed in on thirty of France's most beautiful châteaux, perpetuating twenty-one bird's eye views of gloriously laid out (open) jeux de paumes in the process. The most fascinating are his designs for Charleval (with four tennis courts laid out in the gardens), Verneuil (with tennis players on court and spectators in the galleries). Both of these architectural projects were actuallly commissioned to him by Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother.

The layout and dimensions of a Renaissance tennis court were regulated, so we learned from Scaino's treatise on ballgames. Du Cerceau's original drawings (on vellum, preserved in the British Museum) for his book on French palaces clearly show the larger (Jeu à Dedans) and smaller (Jeu Quarré) type of tennis courts, especially in his design for Blois. But his elevations also shed light on other features of Renaissance jeux de paumes, for example spectator galleries. Anet and Blois had upper galleries at one, or even either side of the court, to cater for a larger group of spectators. As we saw, however, most of the onlookers watched from the galleries alongside, or from the dedans at the back in the larger type of tennis court. This way 30 spectators at the most could be accommodated. In principle larger facilities were not required as tennis matches did not feature on the formal fixture list during royal festivities. Visiting dignitaries and their most faithful courtiers were invited on an individual basis to engage in a game of "paume" after they had attended the official events of the programme such as horse races, feats of arms, banquets, concerts and the performance of plays.

The Jeu de Paume of Chateau Versaiiles
The Jeu de Paume of Chateau Versaiiles
With Painting of 'Le Serment du Jeu de Paume' in the background 1789

For the aristocracy organising a tennis match was a low-profile affair, for which participants and spectators were usually handpicked. This way the elite could indulge in the game wholeheartedly without being observed by a member of the lower orders. One French king, however, had no reason to feel embarrassed about his performance at any tennis court. Henry II (1547-1559) was seen as one of the best paume-players of his age and he liked to play before as many people as possible. Some observers were duly surprised to see the king lose a match (as well as some money) when he played his favourite game of tiers (three against three). As the Venetian Capello noted on Henry's tennis playing: "no one would know that it is the king who is playing because they observe neither ceremony nor etiquette for him. They even discuss his faults and I have observed on several occasions that a disputed point has been given against him". Henry may well have been the only Renaissance king who refused to allow any deference for his royal status when engaging in sports.

Le Jeu Royal de la Paume came to a virtual end during the French Revolution of 1789, when anything that was associated with the king had to be abolished. The venue for the announcement on 20 June 1789 was carefully chosen: the Royal Tennis Court of Versailles Palace. The announcement of the French Revolution became known as the Tennis Court Oath (Le Serment du Jeu de Paume). The Jeu de Paume of Versailles still stands but now serves as a museum, not to be confused with the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, the famous museum for modern art in Paris. As the name suggests this was also originally a tennis court, or actually two: in 1861 Napoleon III gave permission for their construction in the gardens of the Tuileries.

Nederlandse Real Tennis Bond