Notes on the game of ball in Mantua in the Gonzagan era

Te island and the palazzo of San Sebastiano
Giulio Romano, pupil and heir of Rafael, came to Mantua in October 1524 upon invitation of Marquis Federico II Gonzaga (1500-1540). The prince immediately tasked the new court artist with restructuring the vast stable block on Te island, built a “shot of the crossbow” away from the town walls in 1502 by his father Francesco II (1466-1519), in order to transform it into “a small residence to which he could retire sometimes to feast, or dine for pleasure” (Vasari). In a short time, Giulio had created the famous villa that we can still admire today. During the work, in a letter from 31 August 1526, Giulio pointed out to the marquis that he would retrieve building materials from “the place [lo ioco] of the ball game”: this is the first mention of the indoor racket court, as the building dedicated to the game of tennis would often be called. Hence, it is to be supposed that this covered structure predates the current palazzo and had been built together with the stables which were finished in 1502. It measured around 24.5 by 11.5 metres and could also be accessed from the interior which a few years later Giulio Romano would transform into the famous Chamber of Giants: the southern wall – as has recently been discovered – still contains a communicating door, hidden by the frescoes. As narrated on this site, during his stay in Mantua in 1530, Emperor Charles V would play three real tennis games.
Francesco II also had Palazzo di San Sebastiano built alongside the town gate looking onto Palazzo Te. He spent his later years in these sumptuous rooms overlooking the lake and beautiful gardens. The young Federico also wanted his father’s ‘pleasure residence’ to have two new courts, one behind the palazzo “for the small ball”, and the other “for the big ball… between the monastery of San Sabestiano and the palazzo garden wall”, which was duly straightened and raised. This information was sent by Vincenzo de’ Preti to Isabella d’Este, Federico’s mother, on 15 April 1525; the court official also took the opportunity to note that, concerning the monastery, they would have to spend a few ducati “to make metal grilles for the windows looking onto the road so that the balls do not come in”.

In Palazzo Ducale
In the majestic, ancient court buildings, today known as Palazzo Ducale, we know that there was a tennis court that was knocked down to make room in 1562 for a grandiose holy building: the palatine basilica wanted by the Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga (1538-1587), son of Federico II. The duke was a good administrator and also brought glory to the state and the household by investing a lot in the religious sphere. The basilica of Santa Barbara was built by the architect Bertani and had the privilege of having its own missal. It was decorated with exquisite works of work and resounded with sublime music composed especially for the holy ceremonies celebrated there. The basilica still stuns its visitors who can listen to the moving notes of the original organ (1565) by the famous organ maker Graziadio Antegnati.
Then as now, the places where real tennis was played were ablaze with the excitement of the spectators who on no rare occasion ended up in violent fights. We all remember the drama with its fatal consequences experienced by Caravaggio in Rome, which originated on a real tennis court, but unfortunate incidents could also happen in Mantua. One quite sensational event happened on the playing field in the vast space inside Palazzo Ducale which the residents still call Piazza del Pallone today, despite its transformation into a garden and official name of Piazza Lega Lombarda dating as far back as 1876. On 28 August 1622, among the spectators of a game of “ballone” (literally, “big ball”) a verbal and physical dispute was sparked between a canon regular of San Salvatore and the court painter Domenico Fetti, both flanked by supporters with weapons in hand. It seems that the argument did not cause any injuries but the fact that it took place within sight of Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga (1587-1626) made it an offensive act. Fetti, as he himself recounts in a detailed letter sent to the duke on 10 September that year, escaped to Venice and never came back, despite the encouragement received from the court of Mantua.

Ruins and balette
The existence of the courts created by the lords of Mantua for the game of ball is proven by some rare archival documents as well as the ruin of the racket court in Palazzo Te, demolished in the 18th century. To me the photograph with Gianni Clerici on a visit to the palazzo on a rainy day in March 2013 seems emblematic. Our honorary chairman is portrayed looking at the platform to protect the uneven foundations of the racket court where the 30-year-old Charles V proved his tennis-playing talent. The image reflects the typical neoclassical paintings and drawings portraying great artists and men of letters in a pose of nostalgic meditation before the glorious ruins of ancient Rome.
We are somewhat consoled by the fact that other humble but precious material evidence of the game of real tennis has been found in recent times: three balls at Palazzo Te and three in Santa Barbara. The former were found among the debris of the attic during restoration work in 1989, while the others were discovered in a cupboard built into the wall next to the arcade of a secondary basilica door. As it would seem from the holes nibbled by mice, they are all probably stuffed with sheep’s wool but specialist analyses could give us more precise information. The balls found in Palazzo Te appear firmer and more tightly packed. One of them is reinforced by external rope netting as was still customary in the 18th century: see the beautiful etchings in the eighteenth-century Encyclopédie (entry Paulmerie, plate 4). They were balls used for the rough play of young contestants who did not fear exposing themselves to their adversaries’ hits. The balette found in Santa Barbara (next to a peach stone) are different. One is made of reversed leather, with yellow and brown segments, and it looks like the cloth balls that children could still buy in village fairs in the twentieth century, tied to a rope or a long piece of elastic; the other two are high quality and seem to be made of sheepskin. The biggest of the two stands out for its elegance. While slightly damaged by the passing of time, its simple floral decorations are still visible: red corollas with sepals and leaves painted in various shades of green and brown. Such a delicate ball, painted like a miniature on parchment, and carefully sewn, was not suited to the violent blows of a racket but the softer strikes of the “da mano alla distesa” or “gioco da mano con la corda” game spoken of by Antonio Scaino: the ancient handball game that led to the French jeu de paume [palm game].

Ugo Bazzotti

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