The Emperor Diverts Himself At Tennis

One tends not to think of Charles V as a jolly type. Admittedly, it would have been difficult for him to have been as gloomy as his son, and heir to the Spanish Empire, Philip II (‘horrible, and holy’ as Lytton Strachey later remarked), but his job as the firm-handed ruler of about half of the known world and claimant to most of the rest must have been rather tiring, and it is perhaps not surprising that he eventually retired to a monastery.

Charles V in retirement at the monastery of Yuste, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury (1797–1890).  (Credit: The Wallace Collection)

But a couple of things I have seen on my travels recently have given me pause. I didn’t know that, at an early stage in their respective careers, Charles V and William the Silent (very virtuous, but, again, not a barrel of laughs) had been great mates, hunting and tourneying together. This was mentioned at the Prinsenhof in Delft, where the bullet which passed through him during the first western assassination by firearms remains in the wall. And at Palazzo Te, the stupendous palace on the outskirts of Mantua built by Giulio Romano for Federico II Gonzaga, there is further evidence of a possibly more frisky spirit.

The spectacular inner courtyard of Palazzo Te.

Federico II Gonzaga and his dog, by Titian, c. 1525. (Credit: Museo del Prado)

Palazzo Te quite bare-facedly proclaims that it was built for the well-earned leisure of the ruling marchese – as though he couldn’t find a quiet corner among the endless courts and gardens of the equally stupendous Palazzo Ducale in the centre of this small and beautiful town. Ruling Mantua is not, after all, quite in the same league as managing Spain, Portugal, lots of Italy, Austria, Bohemia, the Low Countries (which would soon be revolting) and most of what had by then been discovered in South America.

Charles V as monarch of all he surveyed by Titian, 1548. (Credit: Museo del Prado, Madrid)

However, Federico had the opportunity to show off his rural retreat when Charles travelled into Italy in 1530 to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor at Bologna by Pope Clement VII. He had been elected to succeed his grandfather, Maximilian I, in 1519 (defeated candidates included Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England), but the coronation (the last, in fact, involving either Italy or a pope) was not held for another eleven years, during which period Charles’s troops had sacked Rome and held Clement as a virtual prisoner for some time, so the latter’s enthusiasm for the ceremony may have been muted.

Charles V and Clement VII in the coronation procession in Bologna, as depicted in a contemporary Festbuch.

I have written about Charles’s visit before, but on our own recent visit to the palace, there was a small but fascinating display showing what Charles got up to on 2 April: he played tennis.

The tennis court at Palazzo Te is shown in blue. (Credit: Palazzo Te, Mantua)

Apparently, ‘tennes’, a game imported from France, and called ‘balleta’, ‘palla’, or ‘raccheta’ in Italian, was already being played in Florence by 1325. Federico had a court built for himself (sadly, it was later demolished), and there were other in the Palazzo Ducale and in the Palazzo San Sebastiano, almost opposite Palazzo Te and now the city museum, built by Federico’s father Francesco II, which formerly held the great Mantega cycle depicting the Triumph of Caesar, now at Hampton Court.

The emperor played a game with members of his retinue: ‘His Majesty entered into the game that much pleased him and in which he took great pleasure [tautology in the original Italian] … And so they played the game for perhaps four hours, where his Majesty became much practiced and knew much about the game, and they played for 12 gold scudi per game, and at the end his Majesty lost 60 scudi. … And then, satisfied, his Majesty returned to his chamber alone with his chamber-servants, changed his shirt, and refreshed himself, and remained for a while at rest’ ­– possibly contemplating his losses at play.

The interior of the real tennis court at Lord’s Cricket Ground in the nineteenth century.

What was being played here of course was a version of real (= royal) tennis, where the walls as well as the floor are used in a game of mind-boggling complexity with lashings of arcane jargon. It was apparently responsible for the demise of two French kings – in 1316 Louis X (the Quarrelsome, whose devotion to the game was famous) caught a chill after energetic play followed by much cool wine and died, and in 1498 Charles VIII hit his head on the lintel while entering the court at Amboise and died a few hours later. In between these two incidents there was of course the minor matter of the tennis balls sent in mockery by the Dauphin of France to Henry V:

When we have march’d our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturb’d
With chaces.

Meanwhile, In England, legend has it that Anne Boleyn was watching a tennis match when she was arrested, and Henry VIII was playing when news was brought to him of her execution.

The exterior of the real tennis court at Hampton Court, installed by Cardinal Wolsey. (Credit: Sebastian Ballard)

A nineteenth-century image of play at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.

Modern real tennis balls are 64 mm in diameter and made, it seems, from a cork core, with fabric tape wound tightly round it. This is then covered in Melton cloth, from Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, heart of the English hunting scene, where a thick, heavy cloth for weatherproof outdoor garments (including hunting pink coats and donkey jackets) was developed.

Two examples of the use of Melton cloth, in our classless society …

At Palazzo Te you can see some original tennis balls, some found on the site, others at the church of Santa Barbara behind the Palazzo Ducale, commissioned by Guglielmo (1538-87), Federico’s second son (the eldest, Francesco, dying very soon after his father) and built between 1562 and 1572. Guglielmo was a famous lover of sacred music, and corresponded with Palestrina; his son Vincenzo employed Monteverdi, though the relationship does not seem to have been happy. So perhaps the tennis balls found here were in a previous ball-court which had been dismantled or levelled to build the church?

Photographs of the tennis balls founds at the church of Santa Barbara: the painted one at the bottom may have been used for a hand-ball game.

How to bind a tennis ball, from Diderot’s Encyclopédie.

Sixteenth-century tennis balls on display in Palazzo Te.

Whether it was the tennis, or the sixty most beautiful ladies of Mantua who appears at the ball, or the wonderful frescoes on the walls, Charles seems to have enjoyed his stay at Palazzo Te – at any rate, it was in 1530 that he bestowed upon Federico the title of Duke of Mantua, which stayed in the family until the direct Gonzaga line died out in 1708.


This entry was posted in Art, Biography, History, Italy, Museums and Galleries and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Emperor Diverts Himself At Tennis

  1. 21jumpcheeks says:

    Question: how come your last blog featuring the Boo didn’t go on Facebook?

    Sent from my iPhone



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