“I see every day at the Ridotto a great deal of play, but without my being tempted, for I have not touched a card since my arrival and desire continuing in that resolution.”
James Boswell, Letter to the Earl of Essex from Venice.
Venice was a city noted for its voracious gambling, particularly around the time of the Carnival. It was here at the end of the 12th century that the first public gambling tables in Europe were established and in the 13th and 14th century the fever for games of chance was so widespread in the city that it was found necessary to pass statutes forbidding gambling in the courtyards of the Doge’s Palace and in the Basilica of St Mark. Yet nothing could stop the obsession with gaming. Although playing cards were not invented by the Venetians, Venice soon enjoyed the monopoly on their manufacture. The so-called ‘ridotti’ were gaming places found in many grand houses, and in the houses of the courtesans. An edict of 1598 referred to places “with gaming, drunkenness and other dishonesties to the manifest shame of the state” and even servants were asked to denounce masters who set up gambling tables. Non-patricians were also addicted, with dice and cards played in taverns and squares, in wine-shops and barbers’ shops, upon bridges, and even in gondolas. Not everyone succumbed to this particular vice and Lady Wortley Montagu was proud to boast “I have better health and spirits than many younger ladies, who pass their nights at the ridotto, and days in spleen for their losses there. Play”, she concluded, “is the general plague of Europe.”
Differing in scale from the ridotti were the casini. According to the eighteenth-century grand tourist Thomas Watkins:
“Casino is an elegant diminutive than signifies a small house of amusement. All the noble Venetians who are wealthy have their palaces but pass the chief part of their time in these Casini, which are generally in the environs of St Mark’s place. The St Samuel casino is the most brilliant in Venice. The amusement here are conversations, cards and company”.
But we know from the Memoirs of Casanova that casini were often put to rather less innocent purposes. To hear eighteenth-century grand tourist Thomas Nugent discuss the dangers of gambling in Venice play the audio below: