Although gambling seems to be as old as the humanity itself, with its origins virtually untraceable, the history of the Western casino as an organized gambling institution is well-documented. This article described the history of Il Ridotto, the very first official casino in Europe.
The Name of the Game
“Casino” is a complicated term to dig into the meaning of. The word itself originates from the Latin word “casa” meaning “cottage”. In Italian, it was used to define a villa in the country or a social club. In the XIXth century, it also meant villas or palazzos where public entertainment, such as dancing, gambling, and musical events took place. In fact, some places called “casino” had never hosted a single game, such as Copenhagen Casino, which was a theatre, or the Hanko Casino, which was actually a banquet hall.
Gradually, the accent shifted, and the word "casino" acquired the meaning of a brothel or a generally messy, noisy place, while "casinò" is used for the gaming establishment in modern Italian.
Gambling in Italy
While humanity has been gambling, it would seem, throughout most of its existence all over the world, the first actual casino that fits the current definition opened its doors in Italy.
Gambling has a long and history in Italy. It has been popular ever since the Roman Empire (and, possibly, earlier). A board game called “Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum“ or, otherwise, “XII scripta" (meaning "12 markings"), was very popular with the ancient Romans. It was akin to the modern backgammon and was played with 3 dice and 15 pieces. The earliest mention of this game that we are aware of is in "The Art of Love", a series of elegies written by the poet Ovid in circa 2 AD.
Gambling remained popular in Italy throughout all the political and cultural turmoil, as the Empire collapsed, and the Italian Republic was gradually fashioned. It was there that baccarat and bingo were invented, and this is where Giacomo Casanova gained his fame, not only as a lover but also as a gambler.
In his memoirs, Casanova mentions such games of chance as whist and Biribi (a game similar to lotto). He received his training from the professional gamblers and would team up with them to obtain large winnings. He would, however, not become a professional gambler himself, because of his overly hot temper which would occasionally lead him to violence and duels. As he put it himself, "I had neither prudence enough to leave off when fortune was adverse, nor sufficient control over myself to stop when I had won."
In the XVIIth century, Venice was the center of Mediterranean trading, a place where East met West and the twain would mix in the labyrinthine vias and stradas, a bubbling cauldron of colors, flavors, goods and curiosities, entertainment and vice, exceptional works of art, and sexual perversions from all over the known world. No wonder that it was in “La Serenissima”, as Venice was nicknamed, that the first casino was established.
The First Gambling House
In 1638, after several failed attempts to ban the privately-owned gambling dens frequented by the Venetian nobility, the Great Council of Venice established the first official gambling house in Europe. The place was called “Il Ridotto”, meaning “the private room”. Originally, “ridotti” were small luxurious apartments used for various forms of amusement. The name derives from the verb “ridurre”, which means “to make something private”. The word was also used for the theatre foyer, where the public would gather during the intermissions.
Although Il Ridotto was not defined as a casino, it did exactly what the modern-day casinos do: provided gambling services controlled by official authorities for the duration of the Venice Carnival season.
The casino was located nearby the San Moisè church, in a wing of Palazzo Dandolo that belonged to the Dandolos, a very powerful patrician family. Il Ridotto was open to the general public, but, in fact, regular citizens could not afford to play there. The strict formal dress code and high stakes became a natural filter so that only the sufficiently wealthy would get in. All the players were required to wear the black and white “bauta” masks and three-cornered hats. Only the “barnabotti”, the croupiers, would appear with bare faces.
Some of the games offered in Il Ridotto were, to our knowledge, Basetta and Biribi. Biribi is a game that resembles lottery with up to seventy possible outcomes and a very simple gameplay: the players would make their bets, and then the banker would pull a number out of the bag. The person who had a bet on that number was the winner. Basetta is a card game with very high stakes, resembling at the same time both blackjack and poker.
Il Ridotto thrived until 1774, when Giorgio Pisani, a leader of the reforming party, insisted that it should be closed. Pisani was adamant that the gambling house ought to be closed in order to “preserve the piety, sound discipline, and moderate behavior". The actual reason for this, apart from the moral aspect of gambling, was the fact that the casino was effectively ruining the wealthy Venetians. It was not infrequent that someone’s whole inheritance would be lost at the gambling table in the course of just one night. The adjacent streets were also swarming with thieves, pickpockets, and prostitutes, all waiting to try their luck with a wealthy casino client. As the Council of Ten (one of Venice’s major governing bodies) described it, the place attracted “a detestable mix of patricians, foreigners, and plebeians, of honest women, and public prostitutes, of cards and weapons by day and by night that confound every status, consume very fortune, and corrupt every custom.”
The casino was closed that same year.
Words: Jelena Schmidt