Palla (Italian for ball) is a traditional Tuscan ball game played in towns between Siena and Grosseto. It is also called palla EH! (or pallaeh!) because players call out eh! before serving.

Small hand-made balls contain a lead pellet wrapped in rubber and wool with a leather cover. The game is played by facing teams who strike (not catch) the ball with either a bare or gloved hand. Courts are marked out with painted lines on town streets, but there is no net, and players can move between sides. Adjacent buildings, objects, and sometimes spectators, are considered "in play." Play does stop for oncoming automobiles. Similar to real tennis, a second bounce can result in a "chase" rather than an outright point, marked in chalk where the ball stops rolling.

In one version of palla, scoring is identical to that of tennis (15-30-40-game). In a variant sometimes called pallaventuno (or palla 21) scoring is 7-14-21. Pallacorda (or palla della corda) is an extinct form of the game where a cord was strung across the street. Pisa, Prato, Rome, Siena, and various Tuscan towns still have streets named via Pallacorda or via Della Corda.

Historical significance

Palla is of interest to those who study the history of tennis, as it provides some insight into the development of the more contemporarily popular sport. Given the similarities of scoring and the use of chases, it is highly likely palla and tennis share a common sporting ancestor, the various games of palla being more primal in form.

The fact that real tennis was originally played without racquets is well documented. The name of the sport in French is jeu de paume, or game of the palm (of the hand). However, the development of the net is documented less well. In real tennis the net is also referred to sometimes as "the line." Palla eh! uses only a line painted on the ground to mark territory, and this is probably all it was originally. The cord was added for pallacorda probably just to keep the players on their respective sides of the court, and a ball that went under the cord, yet across the line, was probably still a fair shot. Later illustrations of pallacorda and tennis show tassels hung from the cord to indicate if a ball went below the cord. The net was merely an enhancement on the tassels, and it now serves three functions: marking territory, controlling player movement, and restricting the flight of the ball. When modern lawn tennis adopted real tennis' net, it also brought with it these three functions.

The fact that variants of palla are all street games, and that they are clearly related to real tennis suggests something of the development of the latter sport's court. It had been assumed that a real tennis court developed from the layout of monastery cloisters. This is mainly due to the early popularity of the game among clerics, and similarities of some court features to a cloister. However, this theory has two problems. Cloisters are usually square, while a tennis court is much longer than it is wide. Secondly, some of the similar features of tennis courts were actually introduced in the 16th century, and earlier layouts were less similar to cloisters. The study of palla has led many to suggest that the first tennis courts were made by those who wanted to play the street game, but could afford a more private and much cleaner setting. Similarities to cloisters in later court designs could either be coincidence, or intentional innovations, rather than a more organic evolution of forms. The proportions of the court and features such as penthouses and windows could easily relate to medieval streets.

See also


  • Morgan, Roger (1989). "European Derivatives of Tennis" in The Royal Game, L. St J. Butler & P. J. Wordie, ed. Stirling: Falkland Palace Real Tennis Club. ISBN 0-9514622-0-2 or ISBN 0-9514622-1-0.
  • McNicoll, Kathryn (2005). Real Tennis, pp. 21-22. Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications ISBN 0-7478-0610-1.
  • Whitman, Malcolm D. (1932). Tennis: Origins and Mysteries, p. 85. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications (2004 reprint). ISBN 0-486-43357-9.

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