Italy, after the Renaissance, was notorious for its gamblers. (At that time, Italy was not a single nation, but a collection of several duchies and city-states.) Private gambling establishments and gambling within pubs were very prevalent across the entire Italian peninsula.
The Italians were passionate about gambling, but the most important point is that they turned gambling into a business. Northern Italy, the most economically, socially, and culturally advanced region in Europe, was the cradle of commercial gambling. Venice had been the mecca of gambling for a long time. By the end of the 14th century, Venice was the hub of card games, and although the lottery was not invented in Venice, it was rampant in the 16th century. Especially during the Carnival period, all Venetians, regardless of class and gender, were engrossed in gambling. The relatively poor enjoyed card games and dice games in public places such as streets, bridges, squares, and wine shops. Gamblers who were occasionally caught in police raids could be fined or imprisoned, but those gambling would not hurry to run away even when they heard the police were coming; they would just leave their spots. Nobles gambled in more sophisticated places. At their exclusive parties, the nobles presented games of chance to their guests, and it was very rare for the police to raid the gambling scenes of nobles with political connections.
The Casino Stories from Ridotto
Decrees banning gambling failed to inhibit the dramatic transformation of gambling during the 16th century. In 1567, a risky ordinance was announced. It was a law about the Ridotti, places for nobles and gambling. The word Ridotto is derived from Ridùrre, which means to reduce, close, or make more private and secretive. Typically, Ridotto could refer to anything that is closed off, like confidential meetings of government bureaucrats or secret rooms set up for private purposes within homes. However, soon this term came to mean a somewhat private space where one could indulge in gambling, dancing, good food, and even the latest gossip. The infamous Ridotto still remained a part of the nobles’ houses. Inns and other public places were the venues where commoners who were not nobles could gather comfortably.
The 17th-century laws opposing gambling reflected the changes in the spaces known as Ridotti. These were no longer places where nobles gathered to gamble, eat, and drink within permissible limits. Instead, the nobles were making a direct profit by gambling and staking a portion of the pot. From records stating that the blasphemy executors accused all the nobles who owned the Ridotti and the employed staff who actually operated the games, it appears that the nobles employed professional dealers.
The game that held the most significance in the Ridotti was Bassetto, or Basset, a game invented in 16th-century Venice. Basset, in particular, was a banking game predicated on an inequality between the dealer/banker and the game participants. Players could place a major bet guessing which way the cards would be distributed between the player or the dealer, with the option to also place a bet with a lower probability but a larger reward. For example, if a player bet on the king card and the first king card from the deck was distributed to the player’s side, they could receive three times the amount they bet, or they could re-bet all the money they just won, including the original stake. If the player chose the latter and the king was distributed to the player again, they could receive seven times the original stake. If they bet and won, they could do it a third time in the same way, and if they won all three times, they could receive 30 times the original stake. This betting method is known as a Paroli (which is the origin of the English word ‘Parlay’). Achieving such results in terms of probabilities is very challenging, but with the gamblers’ desire for bigger rewards, Basset became a highly profitable game. In other words, the banker eventually made the money.
Upon entering the Ridotto, there were two rooms, one selling stimulating refreshments (coffee, tea, chocolate) and another offering cheese, wine, fruit, and sausages to the guests. Past these was the Long Hall, a two-story room whose ceiling fresco was Jerolamo Colonna’s “The Triumph of Virtue”, likely a warning against cheaters. Along the sides of the Long Hall were Basset gaming tables operated by Barnabotti, or Barnabites, nobles fallen into extreme poverty who shuffled cards or ran games themselves. Despite their financial hardships, the Barnabotti couldn’t obtain salaried jobs due to their noble status, living off of stipends provided by the Parish of Saint Barnaba. Granting them the monopoly of the Ridotto was a step in minimizing the costs of maintaining them with public funds. This would have been an early example of gambling under the guise of public welfare. According to Venetian law, Barnabotti running games at the tables had to wear black gowns and wigs that reached their shoulders. These impoverished nobles initially lacked the funds to act as the bank themselves, but sometimes more affluent nobles or merchants would pay a salary to the Barnabotti to operate the games and later take the majority of the profits.
Exiting the Long Hall led to six smaller rooms where Basset, Biribisso (a game similar to roulette played on a leather board, also known as Biribi by the French), and Panfil, a type of Italian card game whose form is no longer known, were played. The Long Hall had no windows, lit only by six branch chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and two candles specifically designated by the city at each table. All gamblers, excluding nobles, had to wear masks to cover their faces during gambling, a nod to the anything-goes atmosphere of the legal Ridotto riding on the Carnival. The Ridotto opened its doors between eight and ten in the morning depending on the season and operated well past midnight. Devotees of the Ridotto would often not emerge until the next morning, squinting to adjust to the bright morning sunlight as the people of Venice began their day.
Anyone properly dressed (with a tricorn hat, cape, and mask for men) could enter the Ridotto, but games with higher minimum bets were reserved for the wealthy. Both men and women (especially noble men) were required to maintain a cool and composed demeanor; showing even a hint of disappointment after losing a lot, or excitement after winning, was strictly forbidden regardless of whether they were a participant or a banker. Nonetheless, the Ridotto was a melting pot of excitement for various strata of Venetian society, from nobility, prostitutes, innkeepers, loan sharks, police informants, to corrupt gamblers. The anonymity provided by the masquerade atmosphere of the Carnival decreased inhibitions. Those seeking to escape the bonds of matrimony for a night of romance also came to the Ridotto. The ‘Room of Sighs’ within the Ridotto was a dimly lit room with a long sofa. It served as a place for despairing gamblers to wail, but it was also a place for passionate lovers.
The profits made by the Barnabites and the Venetian government from the Ridotto continued to grow for several years. Buoyed by the city leaders’ arguments, the Ridotto expanded its scale in 1768 using funds confiscated from a convent, an event that sparked the ire of ‘social conservatives’ at the time. The Ridotto of San Moisè remained a gambling hub, but a second casino was opened in the Teatro San Cassiano. The Ridotto adapted to the changing times, updating its games as needed. Around the mid-18th century, the game of Faro emerged, which would steadily gain popularity in the United States and Europe over the next 150 years, causing the popularity of Basset to wane.
The Emergence of the Faro Game
The game of Faro became known by the name of Pharaoh or Pharaon after the release of French playing cards featuring an Egyptian king. Contrary to later legends, the game did not originate in Egypt; it was a variation of the game Basset. Faro was based on the general principle used in Basset, which was for players to select a single bank, or set of cards, they believed they would win. The advantage of Faro was that it was designed for all players to be able to bet (in Basset, players had to draw the card they wanted to bet on from their own deck, while in Faro, each card was already laid out on the table, and players simply chose the side they wished to bet on). Other rules were also changed. If a pair turned up in a single deal, the dealer took half the stake that was bet. Players could bet on the bank, on the side they thought would lose, or simultaneously on several cards. Finally, players had the option to “call the turn,” which involved predicting the order in which the penultimate card would appear (the final card, referred to as the ‘hock’, was automatically discarded).