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The mother of all casinos

The Ridotto, by Pietro Longhi

Off Salizzada San Moisè, at Calle del Ridotto, San Marco 1332, a building with grand piano nobile windows, was Venice’s celebrated Ridotto, or state-controlled gaming house, ancestor of the modern Casino Municipale.

Gambling seems to have been inbred in Venice, especially in its decline, when the wealthy patricians, no longer able to stake their fortunes in shipping, had a chronic need to risk them in some other way. Cards took the place of ships, and the State, seeking to take advantage of this, founded the Ridotto in 1638. Open only during the six months of Carnival, it guaranteed fair play in exchange for a percentage of the proceedings.

The State got rich, while everyone else slowly or spectacularly went bankrupt, patricians and commoners alike (the only requirement to enter was that one wore a mask); tourists like John Law made a fortune there, though others fared less well, like composer Domenico Scarlatti of Naples, who picked up a gambling habit that became the cancer of his career.

By 1774 the Senate could no longer ignore the scandal and held a vote on closing the Ridotto. To encourage the members to vote according to their conscience, the vote was secret; when the votes were counted the Senate discovered to its dismay that it had voted to abolish one of its principal sources of income. But, as an observer wrote, ‘Evidently, no state can keep going without the aid of vice,’ and over 100 illegal social clubs, or casini (‘little houses’), soon came to take on the meaning they have today.

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vaporetto San Marco

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: PD Art