Real Tennis history in Europe

The picture below of two tennis-playing figures composed completely of tennis rackets seems like a free, innovativeproduct of cubism from recent times. It was made in c. 1624, however. It concerns a rare masterwork of fanciful figures that anticipated surrealism. That is the view the great art historian Sir Kenneth Clarke expressed when he first set eyes on the fifty plates of the Bizzarie di Varie Figure, published in Livorno in 1624. The pictures are regarded as the liveliest and most original etchings of a highly creative, if little known, Florentine artist, Giovanni Battista d'Antonio Bracelli (also Braccelli) who was active between 1616-1649.

Bracelli's Bizzarie figures exhibit characteristics of Mannerism. This style originated in Italy in the sixteenth century and was developed to oppose the idealised naturalism of the Renaisance as practised by Raphael and his followers. Mannerist artists made art that aimed to exaggerate elements, making the body longer for instance, to make it more graceful. Their art was meant to puzzle, amuse and entertain the aristocratic patrons they were serving. But Bracelli's geometric figures superceded all other artistic creations in their originality. His tennis players must have been inspired by the current trend that existed in Italy to experiment with popular aristocratic pastimes as tennis.

Like many aspiring artists Bracelli dedicated the Bizzarie to a prominent individual at the Florentine court: Pietro di Pietro de' Medici (1592-1654), who was grandson of Grand Duke Cosimo I and whose own father Pietro de' Medici had fought against the Turks. Cosimo II, who suffered from tuberculosis, delegated many of his military responsibilities to Pietro. Jacques Callot had created his theatrical figures for Cosimo II, and it may well be that Bracelli's fantastic figures were produced with Cosimo in mind. Whereas Callot depicted traditional actors in easily recognizable attitudes, Bracelli presented his range of actors, acrobats, duellists, tennis players and metaphorical figures of the Bizzarie in a singular, capricious fashion. Bracelli did not copy Callot's Balli, but he did succesfully imitate the French artist's unique etching technique.