The eighteenth-century Venice of Canaletto and his rivals was, to almost every visitor, a place of wonder. A magnificent city that appeared to float on the Adriatic, it lay just off the coast of mainland north-eastern Italy. Criss-crossed by almost as many canals as
streets, this seat of a thousand year-old Republic was unique. Known as La Serenissma – the Serene One Venice had an illustrious history as a great maritime and trading power. Although no longer the international force it had been, eighteenth-century Venice nevertheless remained a giant market-place, and its streets as almost every view-painting attests had an international mix of workers, traders and visitors. For foreigners – specifically the aristocratic young British milordi travelling through Italy on what was known as the Grand Tour Venice was not just a city to be seen, but one to be experienced. With a carnival season that could last as long as nine months, and with 200 cafes and restaurants, 7 theatres, scores of brothels and some 118 casinos, Venice was unparalleled as a city of pleasure. Today, the interior of one eighteenth-century casino, the Casino Venier, still survives. The Italian-born art historian Adriano Aymonino, explains its significance. Adriano Aymonino: This is the Casino Venier. It is one of the very few surviving casinos of eighteenth-century Venice, and it s the place where people would have come after theatre. This was a place for gambling. It was a place for, like, socialising. It was a place for the chosen few to gather, sit down, have a chat and tie connections. This place is called casino because the noblemen in Venice were not allowed by the legislation of the Serenissima to receive people into their houses, or foreign visitors, or foreign ambassadors into their houses. because, of course, the Serenissima still feared the possibility of conspiracy by the aristocracy. So what they did was quite ingenious; instead of receiving visitors, especially the Englishmen, into their houses – their palazzi – they decided to build little houses beside their palazzi, meaning piccole casine, casini. So we are in a little house, and actually the contemporary word casino, as a place for gambling comes from places like this. So we are in an original casino, a place for gambling.