Tennis Playing Princes

Real Tennis history in Europe

Sixteenth Century Tennis Playing Princes

In Scaino's time tennis was the most prominent physical exercise practised at court. Through the publication of the first book of tennis rules Alfonso tried to enhance his prestige and assert the Este's authority as patrons of tennis over their rivals the Medici of Florence. Duke Cosimo I de Medici was as passionate a tennis player as Alfonso and was said not to engage in any political activities during the day until he had played his routine game of tennis in the morning.

When Cosimo stayed at the Medici Villa of Poggio a Caiano he usually played a match in the evening as well. Most of Alfonso and Cosimo's contemporary rivals liked to engage in an invigorating game of tennis as well. The Gonzaga dukes of Mantua in particular made sure they could play tennis whenever they felt like it, and had courts erected at their main residences: Mantua's Palazzo Ducale, Palazzo Te, Palazzo San Sebastiano, their country villa Marmirolo and at the family castle in Gonzaga. Duke Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy played pillotta matches of more than three hours.

Parma, another state with strong Spanish links, in the beginning of the 17th century had its main castle, the Palazzo della Pilotta, named after the ballgame. All these Italian princes hailed the game for its ancient heritage, its chivalric image as well as for the excitement the game provided to bet on the outcome of the match. Antonio Scaino related to all these aspects in his Trattato.

Plan of the Palazzo Te in Mantua, with the rachetta court in the right wing of the palace.

Tennis, a Game of War

As might be expected from a philosopher, Scaino does not only supply a comprehensive set of rules, but combines these with moralising and educational interpretations of the game of tennis. Besides Scaino incorporates a rich repertoire of references to the chivalrous qualities the game of tennis possesses. He describes why tennis is the most rewarding exercise for the relaxation of the body and recreation of the mind, also from a military point of view.

The judicious spectator will easily be able to judge of the tennis player's value in the profession of arms: whether he remains calm under all circumstances, is not too daring or too timid, how he is able to constrain his opponent. From this game valiant Capitani can gain much advice for the arranging of their armies, the planning of a battle, the capture of a stronghold, the most opportune time to advance or retreat. Besides a tennis match can give you a better insight into your opponent's character, whether he is truthful and generous or cowardly, quarrelsome and impatient.

Chateau Ecouen with tennis court (Du Cerceau 1576)
Villa Mondragone near Rome, with original open tennis court on the right.

Alfonso's Tennis Play

In his typical, exalted style Scaino states that this ballgame deserves such honour that there be no Prince or great Lord or King who does not admire it to the limit of his power. Alfonso was, indeed, one of the most passionate tennis players of his time. Every day he made sure he either received lessons from one of the four tennis pros (racchettieri) in his retinue or he played with his friends.

On special occasions the Duke of Ferrara employed as many as 9 tennis pros who performed their versatile skills before Alfonso's honorary guests. According to Canigiani, the Florentine ambassador to the Este court, Alfonso on 21 December 1564 started his match against the Count of Mirandola at 4.00 p.m. and they did not finish it until 9 o'clock, in spite of the fact that it snowed continuously. In one of Alfonso's other competitive matches it is recorded how the Marquis of Pesaro, a player of some repute, unexpectedly left the court saying "I thought I would play a Prince (Principe), not a Maestro". The Marquis had failed to win a game from his host. He must have felt all the more frustrated because he had lost some money as well.

Synagogue in Cassale Monferrato, which originally was a tennis court (1597).

The Prince on the Tennis Court

Watching Alfonso play during one of the tournaments played at the indoor tennis court of his ducal palace in Ferrara must have caused great pleasure among the fortunate courtiers and dignitaries who had been invited to watch this private court spectacle. As soon as the charismatic ruler had taken off his cloak of dignity and engaged in sport, a game within a game developed in which the true face of the prince was revealed. His mask was removed, so to say, and he performed on an equal basis where only the code of conduct of the game of tennis prevailed.

Besides the confined enclosure of the Duke's tennis court created an intimate atmosphere, where the spectators alongside the court could hear every sound and see every stroke that was made. His Majesty ran, sweat, scrambled all over the court to retrieve the ball, just like the common folk. He may occasionally have shown his frustration and cursed his opponent's shotmaking. But not just any individual could be admitted to the courtly game. There was a significant difference with the game of tennis that was played in the streets by the lower orders. Those who did not know the rules had to be excluded. The courtier's behaviour was controlled by regulation, for the game of tennis this was Scaino's tennis bible.


In the Renaissance a monetary stake during play was seen as a legitimate practice, especially in dexterity sports such as tennis where genuine ability prevailed. A man who does not gamble, does not live (The Italian "giocare" can mean both "play" and "gamble"). For a prince betting was a virtue: Alfonso's personal accounts concerned with courtly gambling make clear that there was always a distinction between sums "lost playing" and those "given playing". The former was paid to the winners after a lost match, the latter as a sort of compensation to the loser.

The expenses drawn from the ducal accounts of February 1578 for parlour games, for playing cards with the Duchess and her ladies-in-waiting, for example amounted to 700 gold scudi. This monthly gambling figure is only a small sum compared with the stakes of some of Alfonso's contemporary rulers. According to the Venetian ambassador's report of 1517 Pope Leo X spent 60,000 ducats from his annuities on games and Vincenzo II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, in just two evenings lost 15,000 lire, corresponding to the yearly wages of 100 members of his court. These excessive stakes should not just be interpreted as extravagant waste, however. The game at court became a possibility for redistribution, a disguised reward for services rendered.