Gambling in Venice is big business and has been for centuries, millennia even. As far back as the twelfth century Doge Ziani had given Nicolò Starantonio, aka Barattieri (barter), a prime location in Saint Mark’s Square for his gambling tables.
The story goes that the columns at the entrance to Saint Mark’s Square had originally been brought back from the Levant in the twelfth century by a previous doge. Having already lost one overboard whilst it was being unloaded, the other two, being too heavy and tall for the Venetian engineering of the day, were left to lie neglected for decades. When Venetian architect Barattieri presented Doge Ziani, in the throws redesigning the square, with plans to erect the infamous columns, Ziani jumped at the chance. The columns were duly erected and the doge consented the crafty entrepreneur his desired prize of the space between them for gaming tables. To dissuade people from using these tables the area was subsequently given a second function as the site of public executions; to this day it is unlucky to walk between the columns.
Having vainly tried to legislate against gambling for the following centuries, the government finally gave up in 1638 and agreed to the founding of the Ridotto, or the casino of Venice, in the entrance hall of the private palace of the noble Dandolo family. The location was glorious, as we know from the paintings which document it, and it was terrifically popular.
Again the government intervened with weird and wonderful laws; only the nobility could be bankers and they must be dressed in wigs, black cloaks and no masks, whilst gamblers must don costumes and masks. Gambling was allowed during the Carnival season which stretched almost interminably from October to Saint Stephen’s day (Boxing Day), to Shrove Tuesday and with other periods throughout the year.
Francesco Guardi, Pietro Longhi, Gabriel Bella and a host of other Eighteenth century Venetian artists all chose to depict this popular social activity, leaving us a chronicle of the gambling customs of the day. In the backgrounds you see the bankers with their wigs and sacks or piles of money, and cheerful, busy café areas. The protagonists of the scenes are the nobility and citizens in their elegant clothes with the Bauta costume: a tri-corn hat, a mantel-like cape surrounding their heads and upper bodies, a cloak, and a larva mask over their face. The mask not only disguised the wearer but, whilst enabling him to drink, snuff tobacco and speak, cleverly distorted his or her voice. For the ladies we also see the full face Moretta mask held on by a button clenched between the teeth which, whilst in this case denied speech, encouraged a mysterious air of seduction.
The casino was closed by order of the government on the 20th November, 1774 but the tradition of transgression and costume goes on to this day in Venice shortly to be celebrated with this year’s carnival.
• The Fondazione Querini Stampalia Museum come stately home houses Neoclassical and Eighteenth century furniture, porcelain and over four hundred paintings. It is one of the richest art collections in the city often overlooked by tourists with their San Marco/Grand Canal itineraries. Within the art collection are many paintings by Eighteenth century Venetian genre artists Pietro Longhi and Gabriel Bella. Through these odd but intriguing paintings, we get a glimpse and a context for the Venice of their time and its costumes and customs such as the fights to see how many opponents you could chuck off a bridge. These paintings are set against the background of the original furnishings, upholstery and occasionally even period costumes. Santa Maria Formosa, Castello 5252. Open Tues-Sun 10 am-6 pm. Fri & Sat open until 10 pm. €8
• The Museum of Eighteenth Century Venice (Ca Rezzonico) is housed in Longhena’s seventeenth century Grand Canal palace Ca Rezzonico. Here the enormous art collection with works by Longhi, Canaletto, Tiepolo and Guardi is displayed against the background of a decorated private palace replete with magnificent ball room and boudoir, parlours and salons. Fondamenta Rezzonico, Dorsoduro 3136. Open Wed-Mon 10 am-6 pm. €6.50
• The Monaco Hotel, Ca Dandolo. This luxury hotel owns the palace which was once home to Il Ridotto, site of so many lost fortunes. If you can get in through the main entrance and up the stairs on your right are the frescoed rooms which still hold costumed parties during carnival. Calle Vallaresso, San Marco 1332.
• Venice Casino, Ca Loredan Vendramin Calergi. By joining the casino (passport, a small fee and a jacket) you are eligible to enter this incredible palace and watch the descendent of the Ridotto in action. The screaming slot machines and green baize against the background of the original decoration tells of past glory and splendour, lost fortunes and fame. Cannaregio 2040 (Vaporetto: San Marcuola). Open Sun-Thurs 3 pm-2:30 am, Fri & Sat 3 pm-3 am. Entrance €5
• Piazza San Marco and its two columns with Saint Mark’s lion and Saint Theodore and the big old unlucky space between them.
Photo: Pietro Longhi, Il Mondo Nuovo, c.1756, Querini Stampalia Museum
– Art historian Louisa Warman earned her MA in Venetian Renaissance art from the University of Warwick in 2000. She now resides on the Lido with her Venetian husband and daughter and works as a docent for Context.