Real Tennis history in Europe
Donatello's Tennis Court
Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), the Master Builder of the Renaissance, in his interpretation of Vitruvius' Ten Books on Architecture, was the first architect to mention spaces for ballgames. In Book V of his De re aedificatori (1452, published 1485-1486) Alberti situates the area for the practice of physical exercises, including an undefined space for the game of tennis (giuocare alla palla) near the portico of the palace or villa.
We may have a clue in determining what the first tennis court looked like by examining an intriguing work of art by Donatello, one of Alberti's most faithful colleagues: the bronze relief on the San Antonio Altar in Padua's famous Basilica del Santo. The representaion of the Miracle of the Repentant Son (Miracolo del figlio pentito, c. 1445) in the foreground of Donatello's relief shows the mercy of God towards a boy who has kicked his mother. After the son has chopped off his foot in remorse, San Antonio re-attaches it. What is most fascinating in the representation for us, is the mysterious structure behind the group of people in the foreground.
In his stunning relief Donatello has conveniently left out the front wall of the ballcourt, giving the viewer a better impression of its interior. The dimensions of the stone structure, to be seen immediately behind the group in the foreground, can be deduced from the size of the watching human figures in the amphi-theatrical structure at the top. They amount to about 20 x 8 metres, roughly the measurements of an early tennis court. Is this possible mid-fifteenth century ballcourt (a teatro della palla, as the art historian Hartmut Biermann called it in his study of Alberti) perhaps Donatello's speculative visual interpretation of the reconstruction that his respected colleague Alberti had undertaken for the sphaeristerium, the walled-in ballcourt passed down from antiquity? Although caution has to be observed, we are confident that we can hail Donatello as the first artist we know to have perpetuated a tennis court. It may surprise us that no galleries along any of the ballcourt's walls can be detected, but we have to bear in mind that the 15th century must be regarded as a gestation period for the game of tennis. It may well be that the gallery as an essential element of the tennis court was not introduced until the second half of the 15th century. Federigo da Montefeltro had a Sala per gioco della palla constructed at his Palazzo Ducale in Urbino (c. 1470) with very much the same dimensions as Donatello's ballcourt: 21 x 8 metres. These measurements prevailed in Italy until well into the 16th century, when the racket came into vogue and the players needed a wider scope for their strokes. Sebastiano Serlio was the first architect to design the maggiore steccato (as Scaino called the large tennis court alla francese) for Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este in Fontainebleau. His gioco di palla for the cardinal's residence (called Grand Ferrara, c. 1545) measured some 38 x 11 metres.