Tennis may not be the first sport that comes to your mind in regards to Venice. And yet, when visiting Ca’ Rezzonico Palace you see the detached fresco by Giandomenico Tiepolo featuring a racket and a colourful shuttlecock lying on the ground. Close by, a grotesque Punchinello departs from another seemingly sleeping Punchinello. In another fresco, instead, you see acrobats performing in what seems to be a tennis court! But why did this sport apparently inspire Giambattista Tiepolo’s son?
Tennis inspiring artists
Real tennis, the precursor of our present game of tennis, strongly inspired artists in the past. Passionate followers of this sport can enjoy reading the 500-year long history of tennis by Gianni Clerici and Cees de Bondt’s research on royal tennis in Renaissance Italy (check bibliography below). Real tennis, however, still inspires artists, even today and it’s alive and well and even growing.
Frederika Adam’s photographs of real tennis courts
In Venice, Frederika Adam’s photographs feature in “Places” as part of the Surfaces Festival (www.itsliquid.com) taking place alongside the Architecture Biennale 2018. Adam has been one of the top 10 female players in the world. Her most recent title was the 2016 British Open Doubles. She started a history society for real tennis in 2012 www.realtennissociety.org
Adam’s art work consists of photographs of real tennis courts and pelota courts. In Ca’ Zanardi, a palace situated in Cannaregio, the northern part of Venice, her photos will hang on the walls among rococo stuccoes and fireplaces till mid-September.
Adam’s photographs do not seem to be photographic prints at a first glimpse. They never undergo manipulation or get filtered. The colours and the lines as well as the conventional iconographic repertoire of real tennis acquire a different allure under Adam’s eye and become abstract. Or rather, as she points out:
“I’m aiming to find the features that make the court unique – presenting what is iconic about each court. I abstract the court to get to this essence”
Visitors therefore inquire about the significance of the different details. Spaces where you play are grounds where a set of rules allows for entertainment, physical brilliance, competition and mental prowess. And her photos tell about all this in a very original way: www.frederikaadam.com
The role of Venice in real tennis
This sport, however, in Adam’s work is not geographically distant from Venice. I interviewed Frederika Adam and with genuine enthusiasm she explained how it felt to exhibit her work in Venice, just next to where four out of five tennis courts used to be in the past. Not to mention, it is in Cannaregio that two of these courts can still be visited.
Gabriel Bella’s paintings in the Querini Stampalia Museum depict “Il gioco della racchetta” and another game, the “gioco del pallone” north of Rialto, in Cannaregio. This means these two sports were indeed very popular there!
Antonio Scaino’s Book on Tennis, 1555
So I ended up reading Antonio Scaino’s book on tennis written in honour of Alfonso d’Este and published in Venice in 1555 by Gabriel Giolito de’ Ferrari et Fratelli. Scaino clearly explained this sport would hopefully become an art as his written words could fix its laws and rules. Tennis is described in all its aspects: what the racket is like, the leather ball, the way to hold the racket and much more. Here you can see the diagram of the court at the Louvre in Paris and a racket, too.
“Exercise so noble and rare for the body and the soul, bringing to the purification of the spirit”, so Scaino described tennis and justified the effort of writing his book.
It was the heyday of this sport all over Italy and not just. Why such a fashion? Nobility thought this would be appropriate as it kept the body in shape just as jousting and falconry, when military training slowed down. While before it was played in the street, tennis became a very important game patronised by the Italian courts of the time: D’Este, Farnese, Sforza, Gonzaga, Medici… not to mention the cardinals! So Venice had to follow this fashion, too.
The first tennis court in Venice opening in a convent!
Forty years after the book was published, in 1595 a first tennis court was already active in Venice in Cannaregio in the Augustinian Convent of St. Catherine, near the campo known today of the Jesuits, but at that time under the control of the powerful Crociferi religious order and near the prestigious home of the Zen family.
The nuns of the convent were the first ones that promoted this sport. In the same area, around twenty years later another tennis court opened in a building which had formerly been a theatre. The second court, run in the 17th century by Pasquale Cicogna, featured professionals offering their services, both in teaching and in playing with visitors of importance. Especially in the 18th century this sport got more and more connected to the entertainment industry. In fact, theatres and real tennis courts interchanged with gambling houses and pleasure venues. And Carnival was a favourite season. This is what it’s left of these two buildings.
Giambattista Tiepolo and his Death of Hyacinth: the end of a homosexual love story
If this sport gets mentioned in a lot of art works, the most amazing one is for sure the oil painting by the Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo, Death of Hyacinth, dating back to 1752-53. Giambattista Tiepolo was in Germany with his son to fresco the Würzburg Residence and met William Count of Schaumburg-Lippe. This gentleman asked the artist to portray a story from the Metamorphosis by Ovid where Hyacinth gets killed during a sport event and his lover is desperate for the loss.
Apparently, the Count had just lost his Spanish lover, a Spanish orchestra director and a passionate tennis player, with whom he had played in Venice, too. Changing Ovid’s story slightly, where Hyacinth gets killed by a discus, Tiepolo painted a racket just next to the effeminate body of dead Hyacinth. A tragic, mythological echo mixed with the modernity of tennis.
Giandomenico Tiepolo and Punchinello dancing and playing badminton
As I wrote at the beginning of this post Giandomenico Tiepolo, son of Giambattista, also mentioned tennis in the frescoes for his own villa in Zianigo and quotes his father’s work. But in a very different way. There’s a shuttlecock and Frederika Adam thinks the racket is smaller than usual, as if it were a toy for a child. Above all, though, the classical myth and the beauty of dead Hyacinth is replaced by a grotesque, deformed Punchinello.
The buckle unfastened, the position of the body with its back revolved and the legs crossed evokes Giambattista’s Hyacinth, but turns a classical myth into a gloomy, ironic nightmare. Punchinello killed by a shuttlecock and a racket for kids. In the end, the French Revolution was taking place and soon the Doge’s State would end, too.
Game over, so to say.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
In 2016 the Teatro of Fondamente Nove closed down. Originally a theatre in the 1600s and then the tennis court appearing in Bella’s painting, it was an avant-guarde theatre we all loved. After two years it’s been kept closed, how about rethinking of it as a place for real tennis again?
de Bondt, Cess, Royal Tennis in Renaissance Italy (Brepols, 2006)
Clerici, Gianni, The Ultimate Book of Tennis: 500 Years of the Sport (Follett, 1975)
Curious to see how you play real tennis today? Here’s the footage of the men’s world championship from 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTNIZFjQRqs