Real Tennis history in Europe
The Este court of Renaissance Ferrara has often been portrayed as the model stage of courtly recreation, musical, theatrical and physical. As we can see elsewhere on this Tennis History Website, Ferrara may be seen as the cradle of the game of tennis, where the elevation of the game evolved. The spectacles Duke Alfonso II's tennis professionals (his racchettieri) staged within the intimate atmosphere of the tennis court were projected as private court entertainment for the Duke's honorary guests, exhibiting the ultimate form of high culture. The Este court was devoted to chivalric virtues, as is illustrated by the literary works of Boiardo, Ariosto and Tasso. The epic cavalaresca notions of these supreme Ferrarese poets provided a major source of inspiration for court festivals, ballets and operas for centuries to come.
The Este's First Tennis Court Theatre
As there were no purpose-built theatres in Italy before the end of the 16th century, Andrea Palladio's Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (1585) being the first, theatrical entertainment was staged in a variety of performance halls, courtyards, hired rooms, stables, granaries or on makeshift platforms in the streets. The Estes appear to have been the first 16th century dynasty to have a tennis court converted into a provisional playhouse. Alfonso II's uncle, cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, during the carnival celebrations of 1547 had the giuoco della pallaof Ferrara's ducal palace converted for the performance of a tragedy by Giraldi Cinthio. We are not certain if this was a purpose-built tennis court as the hall was also known as the Sala dei Paladini (the Paladines were the knights who fought with Charlemagne and this hall may well have featured frescoes hailing their exploits). During Alfonso II's rule a tennis court called the Giuoco della Racchetta in 1583 provided a convenient setting for the Este's epic theatre productions when the famous Gelosi group of actors staged a performance there. The natural arrangement of this Racchetta court, its rectangular shape as well as its acoustic qualities, proved an appropriate venue for a variety of courtly spectacles. The tennis court as an architectural model for courtly entertainment was to contribute substantially to 17th and 18th century European playhouse design.
Although we still have to contend with an apparent drought of verifiable sources on the subject, recent research has brought a wide array of references to tennis court playhouses to light. A preliminary inventory, based on a survey of records that crop up in theatrical and musical reference books of 17th and 18th century aristocratic and civic culture, brings up a surprising number of at least 150 aristocratic tennis courts that were temporarily used as theatres in Italy, France, Germany and the Low Countries. Over 150 tennis courts in Western Europe, mostly linked to palaces, were converted into theatres on a more or less permanent basis between roughly 1630-1850. For Italy the number is at least 25, for Germany 25 as well, for the Low Countries 10 and finally for France (where jeu de paume was virtually the most popular national pastime) the number is 80, at least 15 of which were to be found in Paris (for an overview of the Jeu de Paume theatres: http://cesar.org.uk , click on Places).
For the survey Tennis Courts in Seventeenth Paris and more computer models of French tennis court theatres, go to the website of the University of Warwick's School of Theatre Studies. Based on hypothetical computer models by Christa Williford, and research by David Thomas and Jan Clarke.
Whereas in France the name Theatre du Jeu de Paume has survived (in Aix-en-Provence and Albert, for example), none of the present-day Italian theatres can bear witness to the role the tennis court played as secondary playhouse accommodation. This may partly be attributed to the fact that in France the Jeu de Paume theatres were mainly public tennis courts, whereas in Italy the game of tennis was predominantly the preserve of the high aristocracy. Nevertheless the term Teatro della Pallacorda or Teatro della Racchetta crops up in a variety of historical literary sources, particularly of the 18th century. Florence could pride itself of Teatro della Palla a Corda (located next to the Opera del Duomo), which was inaugurated in 1779 (at present the building serves as a garage). There were earlier examples of Pallacorda or Racchetta theatres in the Borgia Palace in Lucca (1642), Duke Ranuccio II Farnese had a Teatro della Racchetta in his Palazzo Sanvitale and the Palazzo Borromeo at the tiny Isola Bella island possessed a Teatro della Pallacorda.
The Savoy dominion, with its strong French and Spanish links, referred to the tennis court type of theatre as a trincotto (derived from Spanish trinquete). There were Trincotto playhouses in Casale, Mondovi and Cuneo, as recent research by Laura Palmucci has established. Both the Palazzo Reale in Naples and in Caserta had tennis courts that were converted into teatrino di corte rooms for the performance of theatrical entertainment. These were all court theatres. There is one very early reference to a public theatre that used to be a salone della racchetta (1593), the Teatro delle Saline in Piacenza. In Italy the courtly Teatro della Pallacorda remained pre-eminent until the end of the 18th century. Rome most probably had the last Italian theatre bearing the name Teatro della Pallacorda (in the Piazza Firenze): here in 1796 Spontini's opera Le puntigli delle donne was performed.
A fresco by Giandomenico Tiepolo strikingly demonstrates the new function many tennis courts served when interest in the game began to dwindle in the course of the 18th century. In one of the Pulcinella frescoes (from 1796), now in Venice's Ca 'Rezzonico Museum, a group of dancing and jumping acrobats are performing their skills on the tiled floor of a tennis court, while the smartly-dressed spectators are watching from the boarded up galleries. The sloping roof above the onlookers leaves no doubt as to the building's origin. Across this penthouse the tennis players used to serve their balls to the receiving side.