Venice city of gambling: cards, dice, and unbridled passion!
You can learn more about someone in one hour of gambling than one year of conversation. (Platone)
Venice, city of myriad faces, has always been the city of gambling and diversion, with the famous Carnival and the renowned Ridotto, the very first public gambling house inaugurated by the Serenissima Republic in 1638. “Here everyone plays everywhere”, wrote Gemelli Careri, man of law and traveller, who lived in Venice towards the end of the 17th century and witnessed the trend in shops, public houses, cafes, inns and even under the so-called Procuratie Vecchie as well as under the Procuratie Nuove in St. Mark’s square (the Procuratie were the homes of the Procuratori di San Marco, the highest representative magistrature after that of the Doge).
At the end of the 17th century, Venice was The Magnet of Europe, attraction of foreigners…, quoting a book by the abbot Diego Zunica. Even earlier, in 1608, the English traveller Thomas Coryat, in writing of Piazza San Marco, mentions that famous engineer “Nicola Baratterius” who in 1172 rather ingeniously managed to erect the two great columns in the Piazzetta; and who then obtained the doge’s permission to manage the gambling between the columns, which was otherwise utterly illegal elsewhere in the city, and which naturally made him very rich.
“Hope is that one thing a gambler never loses. On the contrary, in it he multiplies and grows in proportion to his losses”, wrote Pietro Chiari. Another profound connoisseur of the gambler’s mind, and himself a gambler, was Giacomo Casanova.
Reading his autobiography, he takes us on a virtual tour of gambling around Europe’s aristocratic courts. He names 22 different games and describes a famous game of “picchetto” which lasted 42 hours. He was a most typical example of an 18th century gambler, one who had great affinity with cards and dice, who took part in lotteries, and who used all kinds of tricks with great finesse. But let’s not pretend gambling was only a male pastime; women would indulge in it too, and knowing how to play cards surely would have boosted their powers of seduction. Though predominantly practiced by men, there were women who lost incredible fortunes on the table, and some who won just as big thanks to their skill in “filare” (cheating), pulling out the best card from the pack. Doges were also known for spending time in the above-mentioned Ridotto at Palazzo Dandolo of San Moisé: in particular Doge Bertucci Valier, his son Silvestro and Doge Marco Foscarini, and among celebrities of old, in 1708 the king of Denmark Frederick the Fourth visited the Ridotto masked, as was mandatory for all players, and won a substantial sum. But when the moment to leave came…well, allow to me finish this particular story face to face during your visit.
Some typical card and dice games
Among the most popular games in Venice was the faraone (literally, pharaoh), which was played widely in the 18th century. It was so well-loved that not knowing it would virtually cut you out of high society. A similar game was the bassetta, with one notable difference, that the banker and not the players decided the stake of the play. Another, which placed almost all the onus on luck and little on players’ ability, was the biribiss or biribisso: the forefather of the roulette, which was among Venetians’ favourite divertissement, being extremely close to the lotto. Exclusively Venetian was the meneghella, minutely described by Carlo Goldoni in his comedy “One of the last nights of Carnival”. And what of backgammon or tric trac, both ancient games which relied on players’ ability as much as on good fortune?! Noteworthy dice games worth remembering are the “dilettevole gioco dell’oca” (the amusing goose game) and the “nobilissimo gioco della mea” (word by word “the most noble game of tag”), often played with rich decorations and for educational purposes.
Casini or ridotti
And now a note about the most popular playing venues, the so-called casini or ridotti, specific to Venice. Groups of people would meet here, mostly noblemen but not necessarily, and their number one pastime was of course gambling. The first casino was born in 1282 at S. Basso, in the vicinity of Piazza San Marco and by 1744 there were as many as 118 spread across the city. Secrecy, fun, intimacy, sophistication… some of these places can still be visited today.
Laws and prohibitions
Between the 12th and 18th century, the Venetian Republic modified its legislative and repressive code multiple times, transitioning from simple fines to corporal punishment. In the 17th century, laws were engraved in marble on the sides of church buildings, banning games of all kinds, although people often skirted such rules, especially in the 1700’s… when the government was in reality rather lenient on this front, despite its general severity.
Gamblers’ Venice in painting
Visiting the city’s museums, we’ll have the chance of getting deeper into this interesting aspect of Venetian culture. The Ridotto was certainly one of the most depicted spaces by Venetian painters. Indeed, Francesco Guardi, Pietro Longhi, Gabriel Bella and many other artists turned their attention to this special place, which was closed by the Republic in 1774, as a gambling venue at least.
…and in literature
Many illustrious names have written on gamblers and gambling: from Dante to Pietro Aretino, from Francois Rabelais to Dostoevsky, but looking within the lagoon’s sphere we have the above-mentioned Giacomo Casanova of course, with his Historie de Ma Vie. But I’d like to remember another lively Venetian character from the 18th century, Lorenzo Da Ponte, the famous librettist of some of Mozart’s most important operas, who makes many references to gambling in his own Memoirs. And, again, Carlo Goldoni, in whose comedies the gambler’s personality and vice are brilliantly portrayed. I’ll now say “arrivederci” with a line from his Il Giuocatore (The Gambler): “gamblers, if they lose, cry; if they win, they despair, for they have not won as much as they wanted.”
I hope this post has inspired you to visit the spaces in Venice which are still unknown to you, and perhaps allow the gambling theme to guide you in your exploring.
If you wish to book a guided tour with Barbara Tasca, please send her an email firstname.lastname@example.org