Nowadays casinos can be found in pretty much every major city and town in England, such is their popularity. There are plenty of different casino chains operating, with Las Vegas in America being a city that welcomes millions of visitors every year precisely because of the number and size of the casinos that have been built there over the years.
The one thing that many people don’t think about when it comes to casinos is when they started and where the first one was located. They didn’t just arrive as fully-formed businesses, instead taking their lead off the Casino di Venezia, which opened in the 1600s before moving location to the one it’s based at today. Here’s the full lowdown on it.
The Original Casino
The first casino in Italy and, indeed, the entire world was opened in 1638. It’s a slightly complicated story, because it wasn’t a building in its own right. Instead, it was a wing of the Palazzo Dandolo, which was located close to the church of San Moisé. Known as the the Ridotto di San Moisè, ‘Il Ridotto’ translates as ‘private room’.
It was converted after the city leaders in Venice requested that it be turned into a gambling house that was owned by the government. The fact that it was run by the government is the crucial fact, making it the first legal mercantile casino anywhere in the world. People gambled in private rooms before then, of course, but this was a legal and more public example.
The decision to open the Ridotto was brought about because numerous private clubs had opened up throughout Venice in order to give people somewhere to play games of chance that had been introduced to the city. After attempts to outlaw them had failed, those in charge realised that if you couldn’t beat them then you should join them and make money as a result.
The wing of the casino was four stories tall, boasting a long entrance hall and dining rooms. It was decorated with fine artistry, whilst the actual casino gaming tables were located on the upper floors of the San Moisè Palace.
It Was for an Exclusive Audience
The casino’s original charter made clear that Il Ridotto was officially open to the public. That might well have been the case in theory, but in practice certain rules were put in place in order to ensure that there was no way that the less wealthy people of the city of Venice would have any chance whatsoever of being able to attend the venue and play the games.
This was done by putting a formal dress code in place that only the nobles of Venice could afford to meet. Players were required to wear three-cornered hats, as well as masks in order to join in the games played at Il Ridotto, which poorer people simply couldn’t do. The stakes of the games played were also much higher than any of them could afford to meet.
The Original Games
When Il Ridotto first opened its doors there were far fewer games on offer than you’d expect to find in a casino in this day and age. One such game that guests could play was Biribi, also known as Cavagnole. It was most similar in style the game of Roulette, insomuch as it was played on a board that had spaces outlined for the numbers one to seventy.
Players would choose which number they wanted to back and then place their stake on it accordingly. Once everyone had made their bets a banker would withdraw a numbered ticket from a bag, calling out the number to the players. Whoever had backed the correct number would be paid out at sixty-four times their original stake, with other stakes going to the banker.
The stakes on Biribi were low, which wasn’t necessarily the case with the other game that was popular at the time: Bassetta. Sometimes called Barbacole or Hocca, it was a card game that often thought of as being one of the most ‘polite’. It was a key game at Il Ridotto because it was one that only the well-to-do played owing to the high losses that could be incurred.
Reportedly invented in Venice, Bassetta was something of an early iteration of Biribi. Players sat around a table and the banker would sit amongst them. Players would have a book with thirteen cards, laying down as many of the cards as they wanted with money on them. The banker would begin the game by turning the deck of cards over.
The bottom card, or fasse, would result in half of the stake being paid out to anyone with the same rank of card. The next card would be paid out at Evens to the players, whilst the third one would result in the banker receiving the stake of any card of the same type. This would go on, with winning and losing alternating for the players, until all but the last card was dealt.
The real joy of the game was that a player who had won could then further the stake that they’d played on their card, with the possible payout also increasing. It became what was known as sept-et-la-va, or seven and the go, if it was a winning card the next time. That would mean that the player would be paid out seven times the original stake.
The Casino Is Shut Down
Given the casino opened in 1638, you might be surprised to learn just how long it stayed open for when you considered that the games played within it had been made illegal across Italy. Yet it wasn’t until 1774 that it was forced to close its doors permanently. It was the Venetian reformer, Giorgio Pisani, who led the calls for it to be shut down.
Pisani suggested that Il Ridotto should be closed in order to ‘preserve the piety, sound discipline and moderate behaviour’ of the citizens of Venice. It was a feeling that was obviously shared by others in the city, given that it was passed with an overwhelming majority. The vote was taken in 1774 and the casino closed down later that year.
It Soon Re-Opened Before Moving Venue
Whilst Pisani might well have felt that the casino games being played in Il Ridotto were bad for the city of Venice, it is believed that more than one hundred such venues had been opened there by 1744. Its location within what was once the Theatre Saint Moses suggests that even back then people running casinos had a flare for the dramatic.
The casino remained in-situ until 1938, at which point it was moved to be housed in the Palazzo del Casinò. That had been designed by Chief Engineer of Venice, Eugenio Mozzi, who chose to follow a Rationalist style that was influenced by Fascist architecture. It was built in just eight months, which was a record for the time.
Marble, mosaic and artistic glass were the key features of the venue, whilst dining rooms, gambling rooms, cafes and entertainment areas were present throughout. A casino actually remained in the venue until the 1990s, at which point it was closed and the venue began to be used for housing press during the Biennale for the Venice International Film Festival.
It Finds Its Permanent Home
The casino eventually found a more permanent home in a building that was known as the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi. A Renaissance palace that was built in the fifteenth century, it was the work of Mauro Codussi. He had worked on some of the most spectacular churches in Venice, so goodness knows how he’d have felt about a casino being installed in the building.
Commissioned by the Italian nobleman, Andrea Loredan, its walls were adorned with paintings from Italian masters, such as Gian Battista Crosato, Palma il Giovane and Mattia Bortoloni. The art collector also had ceiling frescoes painted to give the building a truly classical feel. Soon it began to serve as a home for the Italian royalty, which German composer Richard Wagner also visited.
Over time, the building began to fall into a state of disrepair, eventually being bought by the city of Venice in 1946. The city paid for the building to be renovated and in 1959 it finally re-opened as the city’s new official casino. There is a free boat service that shuttles people up to the front doors, whilst a restaurant and private garden are also on-site.
Now known as the Casinò di Venezia, it sits on the Grand Canal in Ca’ Vendramin Calergi. The casino had been established as the home of entertainment in the city in the 1600s, with nothing having changed on the front in the modern day. That is why Hollywood names, such as Clare Danes, and the musician, Coolio, have been known to party in the casino.
The Wagner Museum
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the Casino di Venezia is that the building also houses the Wagner Museum. The composer used to love spending time in the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, frequently staying there between 1858 and his death in 1883. The restaurant on-site is named after him as a tip of the cap to his memory.
In fact, Wagner even lived in the building for a time, staying in a room on the mezzanine floor. In 1995, that room was given over to the Associazione Richard Wagner di Venezia by the local authorities. It was soon turned into a museum for the beloved composer, with adjacent rooms being added to the space from 2003 onwards, making it the largest museum dedicated to him.
The Modern Day Casino
Nowadays the Casino Di Venizia is the quintessential modern casino in terms of the games on offer, though it still maintains plenty of the glamour of its past. Turn up and you’ll find it a lot more accommodating than it was in the seventeenth century, asking no guests to ensure they’re wearing a three-pointed hat or an old-style mask.
You can play the likes of French Roulette and Fair Roulette, as well as Chemin de Fer and Punto Banco. There are tables for card games, such as Blackjack, whilst the card rooms regularly play host to Texas Hold’em games. If you prefer not to get sucked into a full-on game then there are also Ultimate Texas Hold’em tables for your amusement.
We should also mention Ca’ Noghera, which is part of the Casino De Venezia brand but is separate from the main building we’ve been talking about. Located close to Marco Polo Airport, it was opened in 1999 as Italy’s first ‘American-style’ casino. An entrance surrounded by bright lights leads you into a building that also houses an entertainments area for concerts.
The games on offer are similar to those that you would experience in the Casino De Venezia proper, with variations on roulette as well as card tables and different kinds of poker. There are also the more classical games such as punto banco and chemin de fer. For a truly modern experience, you can play on any one of the six hundred or so slot machines on site.