Vatican Tennis Court

Real Tennis history in Europe

Pope Julius III 's Tennis Court at the Vatican

Trying to establish the true identity of an engraving by Domenico Parasacchi (in his Raccolta delle principali fontane dell'inclita citta di Roma), published in 1647, is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. The centre of the picture shows a slumbering female figure, depicted over a fountain. But it is the two figures on either side of the fountain that catch our eye. They each use a racket to hit a ball towards one another. The players stand on a conveniently paved, tiled floor. But how exactly do the pieces in the picture fit together? Closer observation of the engraving shows that the floor the players stand on, made up of the characteristic square tiles, is actually the floor of a contemporary tennis court. The text at the bottom of the picture provides a clue as to the location: "Fontana del capo cor'itore del Vaticano nell apartamento anticho". The "cor'itore" in the text refers to the Corridore on the Eastern side of the Cortile Belvedere, constructed by Bramante in the early sixteenth century. In what way are the fountain and the tennis players connected, we wonder. May it be interpreted as an overt allusion to tennis court, linked to a fountain some way or another, that was part of the Vatican Palace?

Cardinals Playing Tennis?

Research produces an instant hit, an account of the conti di camera of 1551 for work undertaken by a carpenter at the Vatican's famous Belvedere courtyard: "coritore di Belvedere per farci il giuoco della palla della corda per uso del revine Monti [sic] e vasi grandi da fiori messi sulla terrazzo dal corridore stesso ..". The account records the erection of the wooden galleries alongside the tennis court, which was destined for a new pope, Giulio III del Monte (1550-1555). Large pots with flowers were used to decorate the long terrace of the same corridor of the Cortile del Belvedere. But where exactly was the tennis court situated and how was it linked with the fountain of Parasacchi's engraving? The Belvedere is a large rectangular structure divided into three tiers. It appears that during Julius III's papacy a significant change took place when the Vatican Cleopatra was removed from the Statue Court in the Vatican Belvedere to a niche in the Stanza della Cleopatra constructed at the end of Bramante's eastern corridor incorporated at the same Belvedere. The Stanza's decoration programme served as a platform for Julius III to promote his views concerning the legitimacy and supremacy of the Papacy. The project at this strategic location in the Vatican also included the pope's new private apartments and his tennis court. The interpretation of Parasacchi's engraving now leaves little room for doubt, the tennis court was directly linked to the Stanza della Cleopatra.

The diary of the famous poet Torquato Tasso compiled for his stay in Rome of 1593 provides further evidence: it notes a room that leads to the tennis court, situated near the private apartments Pope Julius III had constructed ("due stanzie in cima della lumaga che cala al gioco della palla, un altra stantia a metà la lumaga che val al Gioco della Palla: Prinzivalli, 1895), apparently at a lower level than the pope's private apartments. In a description of the Stanza della Cleopatra there is mention of seven statues in a niche linked to the tennis court: "nella nicchia attacata al gioco della palla" (Museo nazionale romano, Vol. I, Part 4, 1979, p. 36). More specific is a description of a visit to the Vatican's Belvedere, which indicates that the tennis court was part of a series of eleven private rooms: "si raggiungeva il corridoio del Belvedere qui era un appartamento di undici stanze, padronali e di servizio, detto il gioco della Palla" (Antonio Menniti Ippolito, I Papi al Quirinale: il sovrano pontefice e la ricerca di una residenza (2004, p. 180).

Jacob Brinck's view of the Belvedere Courtyard (c. 1560)The tennis court may be identified as the long, rectangular building at the top level of the 'Corridore' on the left (probably located at the far end).