RIHA Journal 0231 | 2 December 2019

The Great Ball Game Hall of Prague Castle: Its Appearance and Function in the Context of Habsburg Renaissance Ballcourts

Sylva Dobalová

The Great Ball Game Hall of Prague Castle, dating from the years 1567–1569 and built for Emperor Maximilian II, presents an exceptional architectural realization. Apart from the representative appearance of the Great Ball Game Hall also its unusual scale is singular: It is roughly twice as long as was the custom and as was recommended by the Trattato del giuoco della palla by Antonio Scaino (Ferrara 1555). The dimensions of the building are linked to the question of how the Great Ball Game Hall was actually used. Archival sources from the time of the reign of Emperor Rudolf II indicate that it was used probably for the pallone game and not for the game of tennis. From the framework given by the historiography of Renaissance sports and recreation evolves the hypothesis that also covered buildings for the pallone game existed – contrary to the dominant opinion that the game was played exclusively outdoors.

Renaissance ball game halls

[1] In recent years several publications have been devoted to Renaissance ball courts and ball games. However, with the exception of brief mentions in the publication by Heiner Gillmeister and texts published in Czechia, these studies ignore the existence of this phenomenon in Central Europe.1 In Prague Castle, e.g., we can still admire today in the Royal Garden near the famous Royal Summer Palace the Great Ball Game Hall dating from the years 1567–1569. With an arcaded façade it presents an exceptionally demanding architectural realisation (Fig. 1).2

1 Great Ball Game Hall in the Royal Garden of Prague Castle, after the restoration of the façade in 2018–2019 (photo © Ivan Muchka, 2019)

[2] The specific architectural expression of the Prague ball game hall, its decorum, shows that the building was accorded great importance. Although ball games were popular, often those playing them were satisfied with rooms inside a palace (such as in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan). If the ball game halls stood alone, usually they were simple, plain, architecturally unarticulated buildings, as in the case of the ball game halls of the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, the Villa Belriguardo near Ferrara or the Villa d’Este in Tivoli. Buildings in the German lands, known, for instance, from the "Stammbücher" of the nobility, were generally simple walled buildings with a gable roof.

[3] A second specific trait of the Great Ball Game Hall in Prague, apart from its representative appearance, are its unusual dimensions. It is roughly twice as long as was the custom and as was recommended by the first printed treatise on ball games and their rules, this being the Trattato del giuoco della palla by Antonio Scaino (Ferrara 1555). The dimensions of the building are linked to the issue of how the Great Ball Game Hall in Prague was actually used.

The Habsburgs and ball games

[4] The existence of ball game halls in the Czech and Austrian lands can be connected with the ruling family of Habsburg. Their representative and social activities were linked in particular with hunting, but also with tournaments, festivities and with sports. Ball games reached Prague in the time of Ferdinand I (1503–1564), who introduced the atmosphere of modern court life to the metropolis. In 1538, he began to establish the Royal Garden in Prague Castle.3 During the 16th and at the beginning of the 17th century the Habsburgs then constructed a total of four ball game halls in the garden. A further ball game hall was built by Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria (1529–1595) below the Star Summer Palace in Prague, and Rudolf II (1552–1612) also built a ball game hall at the estate in Brandýs upon Elbe. There is no clear evidence that any other separate building of a ball game hall existed in the Czech lands before 1600.4

[5] The Habsburgs became acquainted with ball games and Renaissance 'tennis' in particular during their sojourns in Burgundy, Holland and Spain. Ferdinand I was brought up in Spain, where he undoubtedly came into contact with sports activities; Philip the Handsome (1478–1506), Ferdinand’s father, born in Bruges, was an exceptionally famous player of the jeu de paume.5 However, it must have been first and foremost the ball game hall belonging to the Viennese Hofburg that had a direct influence on the buildings in Prague Castle.

The ball game halls in Vienna

[6] The first Viennese ball house was situated beside the so-called Ebersdorfer Haus close to the Hofburg, which was purchased by Maximilian I (1459–1519), and it still functioned in the time of Ferdinand I. Both the house and the ball game hall burned down in 1525. A further Ballhaus is documented in the royal residence in Vienna in the years 1533–34 close to the garden with the maze.6 In the course of the modernisation of the medieval Hofburg Ferdinand I then built a further ball game hall between 1540 and 1542, in the extension of which, closer to the castle, there was also the building of the Kunstkammer. The buildings were situated on the Burggasse leading to the church of St. Michael. The ball game hall, the author of which was Benedikt Kölbl, quite definitely had a roof and an external terrace, accessible from the garden through a tower with a spiral staircase. The designer of the tower was Jan Tscherte. This tower also connected two levels of the terraced garden, and beside it stood a small house for the gardener.7 Although the ball game hall is described as "large" in written sources, its dimensions were by no means exceptional – roughly 25 x 8 meters (Fig. 2).

2 Georg Matthäus Vischer, Der kayserliche Burg Platz in Wienn, detail with ball game house, in: Topographia Archiducatus Austriae, s.l. 1672, ill. 5 (photo © National Library of the Czech Republic, Prague)

[7] Shortly after the completion of these buildings the Viennese architect Bonifaz Wolmut (before 1510–1579) became the chief architect of Prague Castle.8 In Vienna he may have acquired skills and knowledge which he later utilised in Prague – especially with regard to the staircase tower. Regarding the further history of these Viennese ball game halls, including the Early Baroque plans of Giovanni de Galliano Pieroni (1586–1654), I would like to refer to the already published research work of Austrian colleagues.9 Later, when Emperor Rudolf II eventually wanted to establish his "summer palace on the bastion" in the Hofburg he also requested a new ball game hall in it (called a "Ragetlspiel") with a connecting passageway, but the building was postponed due to shortage of funds.10

The ball game hall at the Star Summer Palace in Prague

[8] Ferdinand I did not reside permanently in Prague. At Prague Castle, apart from the Summer Palace, he did not start to build any other remarkable building. In 1542, a devastating fire forced him to reconstruct the residence. The building work was organised by his second-born son, Archduke Ferdinand II, who acted as a governor of the lands of the Bohemian Crown from 1547. The construction of the very first ball game playground in Prague Castle was actually one of his first tasks.11 The site selected for it was below the unfinished building of the Summer Palace. In February 1548 the bricklayers began to dig the foundations.12 Most probably the structure was not covered, but a brick-built roofless enclosure. It existed for roughly 20 years. Its location is shown on three plans from 1560–1563 (Fig. 3). Architect Wolmut was to establish an area for the cultivation of oranges and Italian fruit trees "alongside the ball game hall in the ramparts" and Archduke Ferdinand wished to construct a fish hatchery nearby.13

3 Bonifaz Wolmut, Plan of a garden below the Royal Summer Palace, 1563, drawing, 300 x 400 mm. Present location unknown (photo © Photo Archive of the Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague)

[9] Not long after this, Archduke Ferdinand built yet another ball game hall. This time, however, it was not on his father’s orders, but belonging to his own project, the Star Summer Palace in Liboc some kilometers to the West of Prague Castle. This ball game hall, the overgrown ruins of which we can still see on the slope below the palace (Fig. 4), is usually referred to in sources as a "galleria" and it was already completed in the first phase of the construction of the Star, i.e. in September 1556.14

4 Ruins of a ball game hall at the Star Summer Palace, Liboc district of the city of Prague (photograph © Sylva Dobalová, 2014)

According to the building records it was provided with a wooden roof. The contemporary poem by Vavřinec Špan of Španov, celebrating the building of the Star, states, however, that it was vaulted.

Right below this stronghold lies the spheristerion eight paces wide and thirteen times one hundred feet long and upon it is a splendid high-reaching rounded [incurvus] vault. [...] an immense, high and noble building suitable for jumping, wrestling and ball games was built here.15

[10] In 1577 the building is called the "Palnhaus".16 It was never an orangery or stable. The back wall was a retaining wall and the façade had arcades, originally with a row of eleven windows. Nevertheless, this elegant variant was subsequently altered and part of the arcades walled up. The result of this was that there were six segmental arch windows alternating with five alcoves (Fig. 5). Between the windows and the alcoves were pilasters with Tuscan capitals. Ascertaining the original form of the façade is important because it was prior to the designing of the Great Ball Game Hall in the garden of Prague Castle and may have influenced it. Also both buildings were executed by Bonifaz Wolmut.17

5 Model of the Star Summer Palace in Prague with ball game hall in the front, 2001. On display in the Star Summer Palace (photograph © Ivan Muchka)

[11] Wolmut arrived in Prague from Vienna in the first half of 1555 to review the repairs at Prague Castle. He clearly participated in the construction of the Star from April 1556, when Pambio (Giovanni Maria Aostalli) and his assistant, the young Giovanni Lucchese, were still working on the Star. The ball game hall is mentioned in the building report of Wolmut dated September 1556 as finished for the greater part and temporarily roofed with timber.18 It is also documented by his requests for payment of salary.19

[12] The length of the ball game hall at the Star was 36 meters, its width 5.7 meters, and the height of the hall wall on the side of the façade with windows 5.5 meters. A ball game hall of such a length should, however, be at least twice as wide. The usual ratio of the walls of ball game halls was approximately 3:1, ideally 28.4 x 9.5 meters.20 The windows at the Star were situated low above the floor of the hall. This rather inhibits their use for Renaissance tennis. What was it used for, then? Perhaps for fencing, wrestling or physical exercise?21

The ball game halls in Innsbruck

[13] According to the will of Ferdinand I, Tyrol fell to Archduke Ferdinand II after his death, and in 1567 the Archduke moved to Tyrol. In the present context we should not forget his ball game hall at Ambras Castle near Innsbruck (Fig. 6).

6 Ambras Castle and its ball game hall (B), detail from a veduta of the castle, engraving, ca. 200 x 300 mm, in: Matthaeus Merian, Topographia Provinciarum Austriacarum, Frankfurt 1649 (photo: public resource)

The author of the ball game hall was Giovanni Lucchese. The building was erected in 1572, but the preparations were done, as with other constructions of the "lower castle", at least from the autumn of 1565. The ball game hall was to be paved in marble, and in 1575 it was decorated by Giovanni Battista Fontana.22 It stood alongside the wall dividing the entrance courtyard of the castle from the drop in the terrain. A plan of its arrangement has been preserved from 1824, which partly shows its original state (Fig. 7).23

7 Plan of the ball game hall at Ambras Castle, 1824, drawing, 510 x 733 mm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, inv. no. A127 (photo © KHM-Museumsverband)

Inside, it had a wooden balcony supported by a single pillar. On the north side it was connected to the cellar of the Spanish Hall by a pair of doors, on the south it was connected by an open passageway to the so-called Bacchus Grotto carved into the rock. We have no reports on the original façade of the ball game hall.24 The length of this hall at Ambras was 28 meters, the width 11 meters, and the height to the ceiling was 7.2 meters.

[14] Apart from the ball game hall at Ambras, there were two more ball game halls in Innsbruck belonging to the Habsburg residence of Hofburg, which Archduke Ferdinand II had built. They stood close to each other. The first, smaller one was situated at right angles to the present-day Rennweg.25 The second extended alongside the Rennweg, and later it was used as a "Comedihaus", then as a riding hall and "Dogana" (today the building is part of the complex of the Kongresshaus). Also connected to it was the "Regataspil" place (the expression probably meant "Rakettenspiel") which was around 100 meters long. The Large Ball Game Hall was connected by a bridge with the Hofburg. Both these ball game halls can be seen clearly on an oil painting recording the destruction by fire of the wooden lodge of Ruhelust in 1728.26 In the painting, the Large Ball Game Hall is rendered with 16 window axes, indicating that its dimensions must have been considerable.

The Front Ball Game Hall in the Royal Garden of Prague Castle

[15] There was talk of a further ball game hall in the Royal Garden of Prague Castle in the spring of 1563: In April 1563 Ferdinand I instructed the Archduke to build a covered passageway ("bedegkter curator"), which could also be used for the playing of the "Spanish game". The old shooting range from 1548 was to be pulled down and the material used for the construction of a new shooting range and ball game hall.27 The above-mentioned comment on the Spanish game is important. From Scaino it emerges that by the Spanish a typical game was played across a net with the ball deflected by the hand ("giuoco da mano"). The French game, on the contrary, was described as a racket game. This is the basic difference in the games, which later, according to Scaino, diversified into a multitude of variants.28

[16] In the summer of 1564, however, the Emperor died, and under his successor, Maximilian II, two new ball game halls came into being instead of one, each with a different purpose. The so-called small or front ball game hall was situated at the beginning of the Royal Garden in front of the Powder Bridge. Archives record its existence in 1567.29 For the sake of clarity I will henceforth refer to it as the Front Ball Game Hall. The general position of the ball game halls in the Royal Garden is shown in the plan drawn by Petr Uličný (Fig. 8).

8 Petr Uličný, Reconstruction of the Royal Garden of Prague Castle, 1535–1620, in: Sylva Dobalová, Zahrady Rudolfa II. Jejich vznik a vývoj, Prague 2009 (© Petr Uličný, Ivan Muchka, Sylva Dobalová). Number 1: Royal Summer Palace, 4: fish ponds planned by archduke Ferdinand II, 5: the oldest ball game house, 11: "Mittlerer platz", 13: Great Ball Game Hall, 20: secret passage, 22: Front Ball Game Hall, 23: ball game hall constructed after 1620, 24: shooting range.

Along the side of the Front Ball Game Hall a "secret passage" was built leading into the garden. On the southern long side of the hall the passage had eight regularly placed windows (today partly walled up). Through these windows it was possible to watch the game being played below on the playing floor. This was evidently the ball game hall described by François de Bassompierre, who visited Prague in 1604 and noted:

When I played ball five or six days later against the great Vallenstein [...], the Emperor [Rudolf II] came to watch our game through the blinds in one of the windows overlooking the ball game hall and remained there a long time.30

[17] Today the entire area of the so-called stable yard has been rebuilt. The length of the building was 30.5 meters and the width 13.2 meters. The ground plan of this is captured, for instance, on Johann Heinrich Dienebier’s plan of the stable yard, where it is the larger of the two ball game halls depicted (Fig. 9).31 From 1680 the building served as a theatre.32

9 Johann H. Dienebier, Ground plan of the buildings at the entrance to the Royal Garden, 1741, drawing. The Archive of Prague Castle, Old Plans collection (© The Archive of Prague Castle, photo: Ondřej Přibyl)

Maximilian II and the Great Ball Game Hall of Prague Castle

[18] Emperor Maximilian II did indeed complete the projects started by his predecessor, but at the same time he initiated his own. Although his activities in the construction of residential buildings in Prague Castle are not too evident today, in the gardens he left substantial traces; he financed, for example, the bronze Singing Fountain. The building activities regarding the Great Ball Game Hall have been described by Olga Frejková and further specified by Jan Svoboda and Viktor Procházka.33 The ideal state of the Great Ball Game Hall, as understood at the time of its rescue at the beginning of the 20th century, is shown by the plan drawn up at that time (Fig. 10).34

10 Great Ball Game Hall of Prague Castle, plan from the beginning of the 20th century. National Heritage Institute of the Czech Republic, Prague, no. N05446 (photo © National Heritage Institute of the Czech Republic)

[19] The building was once again realised by Bonifaz Wolmut and begun in May 1567.35 In September the foremen were already dealing with the vaulting, which was to be "plain" in accordance with the Emperor’s wishes, and the lunettes were to be executed "according to the model". The building was always described as the Great Ball Game Hall ("Gros Palnhaus").36 The vaulting was not completed until the following year, in June 1568.37 At the end of the year the splendid garden façade was realised (Fig. 1). The architect divided it by eleven Ionic half-pillars that form a colossal order row. These support a complete entablature with a barrel frieze and a massive profiled moulding. Between the pillars the centre of the ball game hall has six slightly compressed arcades with openings breaking through almost the entire span of the arcade. The last two intercolumnia instead are closed by two tiers of blind arches (with the lower ones having window openings except for the easternmost). Whereas the central arcades functioned as huge windows and provided light for the entire length of the playing field, the pairs of closed intercolumnia at both ends of the building could mirror the internal balconies.

[20] Reports have been preserved concerning the inside decoration of the Great Ball Game Hall – Wolmut asked whether the walls should be "painted" or merely whitewashed; Pierro Ferrabosco as a painter was suggested. Concerning the north (garden) façade, at the end of 1568 a painter "did not start the [outdoor] decoration". In spite of the fact that we can read the date 1568 on the garden façade, Wolmut considered the ball game hall to have been completed in July 1569 (on the south façade of the ball game hall this date can also be found).38 In view of the type of decoration applied, scholars deduced that its author maintained close relations to Holland.39 Seated allegories of the Elements, the four Cardinal and three Theological Virtues – the following two fields had vanished and have been redecorated in 1954 – and the seven Liberal Arts are the figural motifs that command the spandrels of the arcades. In the last case the figures were inspired by the two cycles of the Liberal Arts by Frans Floris (1517–1570) dated 1551 and 1565 respectively. The ornamental component is exceptionally rich. It is composed of punched ornaments, grotesques, spiral tendrils, braids, meanders, festoons of fruit, vases and birds, medallions, figures of satyrs and animals, a combination of motifs associated with Cornelis Bos (1508–1555). Besides, the decoration integrated the symbolism of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and the arch of the first arcade from the east was decorated with the Imperial Eagle. The construction elements were painted as well (Fig. 11); traces of paint were found on the moulding (spiral tendrils and egg and dart ornaments), and also on the half-pillars (shading).

11 The Great Ball Game Hall, Prague Castle, detail with painted decoration of the entablature and the upper part of a column, after the renovation in 2018–2019 (photo © Sylva Dobalová, 2019)

[21] Last to be constructed was the tower with the spiral staircase, leading to a small room below the lower part of the roof which served as a changing room, and to the attic of the ball game hall (Fig. 12).40

12 The tower of the Great Ball Game Hall, Prague Castle, with reconstructed house of the ball game master (photograph © Sylva Dobalová, 2014)

Up to the spring of 1573 the small room, toilet and floor were still being completed.41 But already the following year, due to soil subsidence, there was a risk of the vaulting collapsing, and in 1577 roof repairs were proposed.42 On 6th July 1589, architect Ulrich Aostalli submitted a cost estimate for the repair of the roof to the Royal Bohemian Chamber.43 The wall facing the Deer Ditch was strengthened with abutments probably at the end of the sixteenth century. We do not know the precise date of the repair, though the envelope sgraffito of the abutments has been preserved. The abutments are also documented by Rudolfine vedutas (Fig. 13). In June 1596 a repair of the tile roofing was ordered, and again in 1612, when the building was clearly in a disastrous state. In 1617 the vaulting finally collapsed.44