Ridotti and casini: the secret retreats of 18th century Venetians

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Venice in the 18thcentury was a fashionable destination for nobles from all over Europe, and while they certainly enjoyed the beauty of the city, they enjoyed its licentious social life even more.

Besides the cafés, the theatres, and, of course, the Carnival celebrations, Venice became famous in the 17thand 18thcenturies for the many private spaces where exclusive gatherings were held: the casinos.

What’s a casino?

The word translates as “small house”, and refers to an apartment or a self-standing building smaller than the official palazzos of the noble families.

Venice, Casino degli spiriti
View of the casino in the garden of Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo.

Another similar term is ridotto, from the Latin “reducere” meaning “to gather”, which clearly explains the primary purpose of these spaces: private retreats for exclusive parties.

Even though the first record of a ridotto dates to 1282, it’s in the 1600s and 1700s, the most decadent centuries of the Serenissima, that such spaces multiplied in Venice.
In 1797, the year of the end of the Venetian Republic, there were 136 of them!

Who owned casinos?

Many belonged to noblemen and were located in St. Mark’s Square, so that it was easy to take a break after the long working hours in the government offices of the Doge’s Palace.

a venetian noblewoman by Pietro Longhi
“The Visit” by Pietro Longhi, 1746, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It was quite common for noblewomen to have their private retreats as well.
The records mention the presence of two casinos along the same calle, one belonging to the nobleman Antonio Nani and the other to his wife Lucrezia: she had two servants in charge of inviting foreign gentlemen to the parties taking place every night!

Others were used by groups of friends like the “Casino delle Amazzoni”, the most prestigious club of noblewomen in town.

Renting a ridotto was, however, not a privilege reserved for the nobility: anyone could do it, and for lots of different reasons. There were therefore people whose job was to provide casinos for rent and take care of them: these people were very often barbers or women, such as a certain Paolina dei Casini (Paolina of the Casinos) who owned and managed 12 such spaces at the same time!

What happened in a casino?

This may be a problematic question as there was often a gap between what was supposed to happen and what actually happened within the frescoed walls of casinos.

Poetry and music were legal and common pastimes in many ridotti, like the one used by the club of the Filarmonici, where a concert was held at least once a week.

the interior of the casino dei Filarmonici in Venice by Francesco Guardi
“Women’s concert in the Casino dei Filarmonici in Venice” by Francesco Guardi, 1782, Munich, Alte Pinakothek.

Literature and philosophy might have caused you trouble if revolutionary ideas were circulating among your circle of friends: in 1774, Caterina Dolfin Tron had to close her casino because the State Inquisitors found books by French philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau in her library.

Gambling was absolutely forbidden, yet, it was the most common activity during such parties. For this reason, in 1638 the Venetian government allowed gambling only in one specific casino: the one belonging to Marco Dandolo, near San Moisé. This did not stop illegal gambling but instead made it more evident to everyone that the ruling class did not respect any moral code. As a result, the Ridotto di Palazzo Dandolo was closed in 1774.

The casino Dandolo near San Moisè in a painting by Francesco Guardi
“The ridotto of Palazzo Dandolo in San Moisè” by Francesco Guardi, 1746, Venice, Ca’ Rezzonico.

Another common use of these private spaces was for romantic encounters. The famous lover Giacomo Casanova described some of the places where he would have his private meetings: these were small, luxurious apartments equipped with everything a couple might need, from bathtubs and mirrors to erotic scenes on the wallpaper, and even… peepholes!

“The Meeting” by Pietro Longhi, 1746, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What does a casino look like?

While lavishly decorated inside, many were hard to spot from the outside: this way only those who were invited knew precisely where to go. Therefore, it was also necessary to control access into these spaces. The Casino Venier, used by Elena Priuli, wife of the Procurator Federico Venier, had a hole in the floor from which you could see who was at the door downstairs!

Casino Venier in Venice, seat of the Alliance Francaise
The hole above the entrance of the Casino Venier .

One of the best preserved spaces is the Casino Zane, now used as a concert hall by the Fondazione Bru.

the gallery for the orchestra in the casino of the Bru Zane Foundation
The upper gallery in the hall of the Casino Zane, once used for the orchestra.

As was the fashion of the 18thcentury, the walls and ceilings of the small rooms inside the casinos were covered with frescoes and elegant stucco works.

Stuccowork by Abbondio Stazio in the Casino Zane in Venice
Stucco work by Abbondio Stazio in the ceiling of the Casino Zane.

Because they were spaces dedicated to pleasure and amusement, unusual subjects can often be found among the decorations, such as exotic animals or feasting cherubs.

Fondazione blu Zane, Venice, casino
Detail of the frescoed ceiling of the Casino Zane.

Due to their secret nature, not so much remains of the Venetian casinos, and the exact location of some of them remains uncertain, even though we know that they were mostly centered around Saint Mark’s Square.

Still, some of them are visible today: if you want to discover all the secrets of 18thcentury Venice, ask us!