Wide view of Venice: Piazza San Marco - Riva degli Schiavoni

The Two Columns privilege

(Gambling in St. Mark's Square)

In the St. Mark’s Square in Venice there had been two big heavy columns which could not be lifted for a long long time: this is their story.

We are in 1173 (not every historian agrees on that) and there are two columns in St. Marks Square that had been part of some war loot coming from the East, Constantinople, maybe, or Greece, the previous year.

It seems there was a third column which was never recovered when the ship transporting it sank in the lagoon, but this is more in the legend/tradition of Venice, and it would explain why they are so much far away one from the other.

But the two columns, very heavy, couldn't be lifted up, so had to stay quite a bit of time in the Square, years, some say,

Until an engineer from Bergamo, Nicola de’ Baretteri (or Nicolò Barattieri, or Barattiero, the same engineer who would build the Rialto Bridge in 1178) who proposed a way of lifting them up.

The method was based on the feature of a certain kind of hemp, whose coarse fibre made a rope that would contract when drying up. It took some time to terminate the process, but in the end it worked fine.

Barattieri received from the Government of the Republic, as a payment for his work, the exclusive rights - ending with his death - to accept gambling in the spece between the columns, an activity which was strictly prohibited in the territory of the Republic, and of course he was getting the right percentage of that.

It seems that he made quite a bit of money, in the end, and until gambling was finally legalized with the Ridotto, the two columns in St. Mark’s Square were the only place in Venice where you could legally gamble.

Watercolor by Giovanni Grevembroch: "Privileggio Antico"
Giovanni Grevembroch: "Privileggio Antico" (Ancient Privilege)
pen, ink & watercolor (18th century)
Museo Correr, Venezia

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