When you hear the word casino today, it’s easy to picture the neon lights and all the excess and over-the-top exuberance of the sin city, Las Vegas; but if we reverse the pages of history, you’ll see something much different. The oldest casino in this world, ‘Casinò di Venezia’, is located in Italy, the birthplace of modern civilisation and the biggest aggressor in achieving modernity, the Renaissance. Also, there’s pizza as well. And as intriguing as it is, the late Renaissance gave us the concept of casinos, too, with all the art and passion.
Go along the Grand Canal in Venice, and you’ll see it in all its glory. It opened in 1638, almost 400 years ago, as a theatre called Saint Moses. In the intermissions of the plays, gambling used to take over a wing which sparked the love of casinos in Venice. And by the time 1744 came, there were over 120 of them in the Floating City.
Truman Capote captured the essence of a city, unlike anything you can ever experience with this fantastic quote: “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” Venice is also known as the casino capital of Italy. They started the casino culture way back, but they’ve kept their own traditions close to heart as well, even to this day. It’s considered that games like Bingo and Baccarat were created in this beautiful place in the 15th century.
You can get a better idea of how old this casino really is by comparing it with other historic casinos. There’s ‘Casino de Spa’ in Belgium built 255 years ago, or ‘Kurhaus of Baden Baden’, which is 185 years old. But as you can see, even their prestigious history seems little against the 384 years of existence of Casinò di Venezia.
The original Renaissance-style palace was built by the master architect Mauro Codussi in the 15th century. He has left his signature all over Venice in the form of some truly magnificent churches. The construction was ordered by Andrea Loredan, an Italian nobleman and famous art collector. The palace was graced by frescoes and paintings made by the very best of Italy, such as Gian Battista Crosato, Palma il Giovane, and Mattia Bortoloni. And if you visit the casino even today, you’ll find many of those masterpieces lighting up the walls and ceilings of the casino. This palace was called ‘Ca’ Vendramin Calergi’.
It has seen history go flying by. After being a casino for a long time, it also became the home of the Italian royal family. Then, in 1946, the city of Venice purchased this historic property. They did all the renovations, and in 1959, the casino opened its doors again. Today, it’s better than ever.
There are innumerable ways to gamble here. Poker, Roulette, Blackjack – whatever you wish, you would have it in here. There are over 600 slot machines housed in the casino. They even host renowned tournaments such as the ‘World Poker Tour’. It’s gambling heaven for noobs and pros alike. And, of course, everything gets a bit more classy with the Italian touch. You know, all the usual stuff: divine food, great wine, and dealers dressed in best-in-class tuxedos.
The fun doesn’t end there. There’s a boat ride you can get for free that will drop you off at the French-style front doors of Casinò di Venezia. If you want the full Italian taste palate, give a treat to yourself in ‘The Wagner’ (named after the great German composer) or ‘Marco Polo’. You can taste various Venetian fish delicacies while getting your money’s worth watching all the splendid frescoes done by a true master of his art, Giovanni Battista Crosato. There’s also a private garden where you can find breathtaking views of the Grand Canal.
In the olden times, this was a gathering place for the thespians. Times have changed, but the casino has remained a cultural hub even today. There have been many superstars of the modern era taking time to visit this place, like Claire Danes or Coolio. The casino has provided the backdrop for and added some gravitas to blockbuster Hollywood movies and many Venice Film Festivals. The most famous of them has to be the James Bond classic, ‘Casino Royale’. Arguably the best film in the long franchise of James Bond pictures, it was filmed in Casinò de Venezia, and the whole city of Venice and this casino played a huge part in setting the film’s mood.
And if you ever visit the place in person, you’ll feel like walking in somewhere straight out of a Bond film. The dimly lit palace is a haunting reminder of all that it has ever been, with all the traditional Italian design relics- felt ropes instead of handrails in staircases, chandeliers made of crystals, and Murano glassmakers’ vintage mirrors.
When the casino first started its operations, it was only frequented by wealthy people; even though, in theory, everyone was welcome. Big games with huge stakes and particularly elegant dress codes weren’t affordable for everyone. Some of the most famous guests at that time included literary legends and stalwarts of philosophy and different arts such as Giacomo Casanova, Lorenzo Da Ponte, Jean Jacques Rousseau etc.
Theoretically, the casino was accessible to all segments of the population, but in practice, it could only be visited by wealthy people – games for big money and adherence to an elegant dress code could not afford everyone. Famous guests of Ca’ Vendramin Calergi at the time were Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Giacomo Casanova and Lorenzo Da Ponte. When it opened alongside the theatre, the craze of gambling opened doors to a new sort of entertainment.
Before the inauguration of this casino, gambling was unofficially illegal. The reason behind this indecision was they didn’t need to ban it previously. But after its massive success and popularity, many other casinos started to open up. All of this was noticed by the authorities, who decided to put in strict regulations to tax gambling activities in 1744.
At that point of time, there were 120 or even more flourishing gambling houses in the city of Venice. Though, this taxation didn’t last long as the authorities took an even more drastic step in 1774. They banned gambling by legislation, and every casino, including this grand old casino, was forced to close.
From 1774 to 1946, the casino remained closed for gambling purposes and took in rather different inhabitants. For almost two centuries, it became a luxurious home. At first, the property was owned by the Italian king, and the royal family lived in the palace for a long time. Then, it changed hands quite a few times, but all the owners were from noble families.
But the circle became complete in 1946 when the palace became a state property, a property of Venice and its people. The authorities purchased it, gave it some touch-ups, and then launched the official casino in 1959. That’s when Ca’ Vendramin Calergi changed its name and became the world-renowned Casinò di Venezia, as we all know it.
After opening its doors, the casino didn’t take long to regain all its charms. And now, for the first time, the casino was a separate identity detached from the theatre of Saint Moses. It had all the space the city could ask for. There are gambling halls on each of the three floors of the casino, and they can easily accommodate more visitors than they could when it first came into existence.
From then on, the casino has gone from strength to strength, making good profits and giving lovely entertainment to hundreds of thousands of awestruck visitors. Embracing all of its Renaissance beauty, the casino truly looks and feels a part of history. But fear not; the gambling practices are not from past centuries. Rather, it’s fully modernised.
Another great part of its history is the legendary German composer Richard Wagner. He took a liking to the palace and stayed here on six occasions spanning from 1858 to 1883. On his last trip to Italy, he booked the whole mezzanine of the palace in advance. He arrived on 16th September of 1882 with his wife Cosima Liszt and four out of his five children. Unfortunately, he passed away on 13th February of 1883 due to a heart attack. This happened while he was in the palace. In remembrance of the great man, a commemorative plaque is placed on the wall overlooking the Grand Canal. The plaque is inscribed with some verses from the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio.
In his memory, ‘The Wagner Halls’ were created inside the palace. It’s an area for the exhibition that’s maintained by the ‘Richard Wagner Association of Venice’. There are rare documents, sheet music, autograph letters, records, paintings and other collectables in this exhibition. ‘The Wagner Museum’ was opened in 1995 in honour of the great artist.
This is the largest exhibition about Wagner, except for the Bayreuth Museums. There are documents that describe his relationship with Venice, how much he loved the city, and how deep this connection runs emotionally and artistically. You can visit ‘The Wagner Rooms’ with an approved appointment. Also, the ‘Richard Wagner Honorary Concert’ is held in this casino annually, along with the ‘Bayreuth Scholarship Student Concert’.
The Richard Wagner Association of Venice has also founded CESRRW (European Center for Studies and Research on Richard Wagner), where they organise various concerts, exhibitions and cultural events inside the palace.
That’s why Casinò di Venezia is not just the oldest casino in this world; it’s even more than that. Its value as a historical monument and a classic architecture is immeasurable. No visit to Venice can be called complete without stepping into this palace even once.
The History Of Casino Di Venezia
Before diving deep into the history of this legendary casino, we should know how this ‘casino’ thing came into being. It all started right here, in Venice, ‘The Queen of the Adriatic’.
In the 13th century Venice, there were Casinos and Ridotti. These were private properties where friends and select companions met, conversed, gambled and enjoyed life, mostly at night time.
The word ‘Casino’ means ‘house’ in Italian, and ‘ridotto’ (whose plural form is ridotti) means ‘closing off’ or ‘making private’. The origins of these public spaces and their activities probably stem from the games of chance exhibited by skilled professionals on the city streets and betting practices. In those days, these kinds of establishments were mainly visited by the most privileged ones, as these were another option to socialise for them alongside theatres. Inside their four walls, there were many secrets and pursuits going on relentlessly. So, complete anonymity and security were of immense significance, especially for those who were there to attend romantic rendezvous or fulfil pleasures of the flesh.
Establishments like Casinò di Venezia were exclusive to the aristocrats. The decor, the furnishing, the dress codes, the security- everything was top-notch. But other gambling houses started to pop up in the peripheries of Venice, in those vast green spaces that served the working people, the commoners.
Gambling was regulated by banning them altogether for moral reasons, but the number of them still continued to grow. In 1638, gambling houses got their licenses. And came ‘Il Ridotto’, the first state-owned gambling establishment in all of Europe, and gained international acclaim. In that same year, Ca’ Vendramin Calergi was also founded, which ultimately became the modern-day Casinò di, Venezia.
In places like these, intellectuals, artists and high-class aristocrats gathered and enjoyed themselves. In these buildings, Giacomo Casanova won over all the beautiful women, legendary playwright Carlo Goldoni found appropriate companionship willing to listen to his amazing stories, and master painters like Guardi, Tiepolo and Longhi realised their power of imagination.
And even though most of these places have become extinct, there’s still one that commands attention and respect. That’s the oldest of the lot- Casinò di Venezia.
The awe-inspiring three-storied building, designed by Mauro Codussi, is a fantastic example of all the best architecture the Renaissance has to offer. Everything in the palace whispers tales of greatness and unimaginable wealth.
Casinò di Venezia was founded in the same year as the first Venetian gambling establishment Il Ridotto of San Moisè, in 1638. Their first venue is the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, the original site of the casino. But in 1999, a new venue was opened named Ca’ Noghera, the first American-style casino in Italy. After that, many casinos came and went in the late 1930s; Palazzo del Casinò was founded at Lido, which is now a convention hall.
The world’s oldest casino is housed inside Palazzo Loredan Vendramin Calergi, famously known as Ca’ Vendramin Calergi. This Venetian palace is situated in the Cannaregio district, which overlooks the Grand Canal running from Casa Volpi to Palazzo Marcello. It’s there right in front of Palazzo Belloni Battagia, near Fontego del Megio.
Andrea Loredan from the Loredan dynasty commissioned the palace, and the cost was paid by Doge Leonardo Loredan. Master architect Mauro Codussi was hired for the project. The construction started in 1481, and it all finished in 1509, according to art historian Gerolamo Priuli. Legendary painter Giorgione was commissioned to decorate the inner walls, which are now lost to time.
In 1581, the palace was sold to the Duke of Brunswick. It was then sold to Guglielmo I Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, who passed it on to Vittore Calergi in 1589. He bought it for his wedding with a noblewoman named Isabetta Gritti. Their only daughter, Marina, married Vincenzo Grimani in 1608. Vittore Calergi expanded the palace in 1614 by hiring Vincenzo Scamozzi, a famous architect. He structured the building into the ‘L’ shape it is today. His addition, the ‘White Wing’ was destroyed by Marina’s three sons when they assassinated Francesco Querini Stampalia in 1659. However, it was rebuilt in 1660.
In 1739, the palace became the property of Vendramins as an inheritance through their marriage. The ownership fell to Niccolò, who is Marina’s great-grandson. The new name for the palace was much like it’s now, Vendramin Calergi, named after two families joined by love.
Then in 1844, the ownership changed hands again. Marie Caroline of Bourbon-Sicile, the Duchess of Berry, purchased it along with her second husband, Ettore Carlo Lucchesi-Palli, Duke of Grazia.
In the time of Risorgimento, she sold the palace to her grandson Henry, Count of Bardi. It was at this time that many of the famous artworks were handed out for auction. In the coming years, the Count and his wife, Infanta Adelgundes, kept the palace as their home and had many famous personalities as their guests.
In 1937, the last descendant of the Grazia noble family sold the palace again. The owner this time was Giuseppe Volpi, Count of Misurata. He remodelled the palace into two separate fragments. The first floor was used as a residential area and for various conferences. And the second floor became a centre for electrosurgical experiments.
In 1946, the City Council of Venice bought the palace, and it became a property of the state. From 1959, Ca’ Vendramin Calergi has been the venue for Casinò di Venezia during winters. Finally, in the early 2000s, the actual ownership was acquired by ‘Casinò de Venezia SpA’, a subsidiary of the casino itself.
The Architecture Of Casino Di Venezia
The entire palazzo is constructed in an ‘L’ shape which is one of the best examples of facades from the Venetian Renaissance. It follows the same style implemented in ‘Palazzo Rucellai’ of Florence and Mantua’s rhythmic bridge created by Alberti. The architectural designs create hide-and-seek between the light and the shadow. This builds a contrasting effect very successfully. The entire facade is developed in three layers: Corinthian, Doric and Ionic. Each layer is separated by conspicuous string courses and backed by superimposed semi-columns.
There are five large windows on each floor that are mullioned with unequal rhythm. Three of them are placed side-by-side in the middle, and the other two are quite a bit isolated on both sides. This odd system makes the facade more effective. It looks more like a two-storied loggia from the outside. This is also reflected on the ground floor, where there’s an entrance portal instead of the central window.
This system of two light windows is obtained from a fusion of designs. Two windows that are round-headed and have one lancet each are encompassed by a semicircle to create this style. There’s a completely circular window in the middle, which reminds of ‘Palazzo Corner Spinelli’, but the design creates a difference. The design is not like the Gothic Venetian, as the main frame dominates the facade, with all the polychrome inlays and decorations taking a back seat.
In the panels of the basement, the motto of the Knights Templar has been engraved: “Non Nobis, Domine, non-nobis, sed Nomini Tuo da gloriam” (Not for us, My Lord, not for us, but to your Name give the glory). The text can be found in ‘The Book of Psalms’ of the Bible as well.
There’s a garden hidden in front of the white wing that overlooks the facades at the front, and it can be accessed from the canal directly via a gate which is also decorated with two statues.
There’s also a small-sized courtyard at the back of the palace. It’s closed on one side by a wall, and there’s a fully arched entrance just beside it. At the top of it, there’s the plaque (tympanum and the coat of arms) which lets you know of Richard Wagner, who died inside the palazzo.
On the inside, the palace’s ground floor has a portego (internal corridor) leading to the stairs. Instead of Giorgione’s magical frescoes, there are some stunning stuccoes decorating the walls today. The piano nobile of the palazzo has the Salone, where Palma il Giovane’s 16th and 17th-century paintings are preserved. The ground floor is formed like a ‘T’, and that’s why the back is spacious and lets you enjoy the Grand Canal with a pretty broad view.
The Modern Version
In modern-day Venice, finding directions to this beautiful casino is pretty simple and straightforward. First, make a visit to ‘Basilica di San Marco’ at the ‘Piazza San Marco’ (St. Mark’s Square). Then start walking along the Grand Canal for 20 minutes towards ‘Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena’, and you’ll unmistakably find Casinò de Venezia.
You can play traditional casino classics, but there’s no shortage of new-age excitement too. In recent years, various modern games like ‘88 Link Lucky Charms’ and ‘Link King’ have been installed to offer up-to-date gambling experiences.
The director of Casinò de Venezia, Alessandro Cattarossi, recently said, “Our mission is to cater to our customers with extraordinary experiences. And by adding games like Link King and 88 Link Lucky Charms from Zitro to our game offerings, we are not only providing world-class entertainment to our distinguished clientele, but we are investing in performing products.”
Like many other land-based casinos, they have also started providing an online experience of their casino to expand their presence into markets of the future. Like every other business, they have adapted to the demands of the postmodern era and the highly digitised faculties. It also opens up many new revenue streams for them.
But all said and done, being inside a place with so much history is something that the virtual can’t offer. So, to enjoy the casino in all its spellbinding glory, you must make a visit if you’re in Venice.