Basque pelota

Basque pelota

  • Pelota game at the Rebot on the Place de Sare, Basses-Pyrénées.

    COLIN Gustave Henri (1828 - 1910)

  • Young pelota players in Guéthary.


Pelota game at the Rebot on the Place de Sare, Basses-Pyrénées.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - F. Vizzavona

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Title: Young pelota players in Guéthary.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

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Technique and other indications: Series: Touring Club de France

Storage location: Architecture and heritage multimedia library website

Contact copyright: © Ministry of Culture - Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Touring Club by Francesite web

Picture reference: 08-500111 / TCF11290

Young pelota players in Guéthary.

© Ministry of Culture - Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Touring Club de France

Publication date: August 2009

Historical context

Basque pelota in the 19th and 20th centuries


Heir to the traditional palm games, the practice of Basque pelota developed, clarified its operation and was organized in the second part of the 19th century. Thus, in almost all the villages, the central place ("plaza") is also the ground where it is played. The parties are moments of sociability, which punctuate the life of the communities.

During the Third Republic, this veritable institution of the Basque pelota became an issue in the conflict of influence between the Church and the State, which tried to supervise and promote its practice, organizing clubs and competitions. In 1900, pelota was one of the disciplines admitted to the Olympic Games in Paris, which helped to make it somewhat known outside the Basque Country.

Image Analysis

Scenes from Basque life

The first picture, Game of pelota rebot on the place de Sare, Basses-Pyrénées, is a painting by Gustave Colin (1828-1910), produced shortly before 1908, the year in which it was exhibited at the Salon of the National Society of Fine Arts. As in many of his works, Colin presents here a characteristic scene of Basque life. In the "plaza" of the village of Sare, a game of rebot pelota is played where two teams face off against each other to prevent each other from catching the ball or returning it to the limits of the field. Each of the players has put on the traditional costume, white with a fabric belt, of the "pilotari" (pelota player) and is holding his chistera, a wicker basket which is used to receive and return the ball. Defenders and attackers are spread over the ground which is a hundred meters long, well rendered by the perspective. The square is bounded in the foreground on the left by a wall on which and in front of which many spectators are massed, in the background by buildings with typical Basque architecture, including the church. At the bottom rise the Pyrenees.

The second image, Young pelota players in Guéthary, is an anonymous photograph from the 1930s that is part of the Touring Club de France (the most important Basque riding and pelota club) collection. In a small plaza are five young people equipped for the game: a chistera, a small pallet (paletta) or a small glove (joko garbi). They are in front of the town hall, a typical Basque house, recognizable by its largely pierced facade with its characteristic porch (lorio), its half-timbering and its gently sloping gable roof. Painted advertisements are displayed on the wall of the adjoining building.


The pelota, at the center of Basque attention and sociability

The two images can be considered as real "postcards" of the Basque Country since, at a glance, the viewer knows where he is. We can therefore consider that in both cases the author wanted to make this region known through the sporting and cultural prism of the pelota, which is one of the most characteristic signs of the Basque way of life.

Gustave Colin’s painting, like other works, is part of this current that saw regional (and sometimes regionalist) themes develop in literature and painting from the mid-19th century to the First World War. The pelota part appears there as an interlocking of symbols, scales and temporalities. The Pyrenees (the Basque landscape: the life of nature, unchanging) surround the typical village (houses and institutions such as the church: the life of men, traditional) which itself surrounds the square (place of sociability and culture) around which it is organized, and on which the game takes place, a more ephemeral but regular and cyclical affirmation of the same tradition. The whole "country" (from the mountains to the men of the village) seems to watch the game, a real moment of village sociability which, for a time, condenses and focuses the Basque identity.

The second image is rather a "snapshot" which shows that, from childhood, Basques engage in this practice, even unceremoniously. Even traditional, the Basque pelota therefore remains very much alive.

  • Pays Basque
  • peasants
  • regionalism


Manex GOYHENETCHE, General history of the Basque Country ; 5 volumes, Bayonne, Elkar, 2005. Louis TOULET, Basque pelota History, technique and practice, Paris, De Vecchi, 1979. Jean-Claude VIGATO, Regionalist architecture: France 1890-1950, Paris, Norma, 1994.

To cite this article

Alban SUMPF, "The Basque pelota"

Video: How to play Basque pelota - Lonely Planet travel video