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The Italian Roots of the Lottery

Adrian Seville describes the humble beginnings of the earliest lottery, tracing its development from 16th-century Venice across the Channel to Britain.

English Lottery 1566 Scroll.Many aspects of today’s British lottery have roots in sixteenth-century Italy, while more universal human forces – such as greed and credulity – are also evident. Ignoring the prize draws with which Roman emperors distributed largesse, the first Italian lottery in which tickets were purchased for money is often said to have taken place in Florence in 1530. However, the Italian historian Alberto Fiorin has drawn attention to the Venetian chronicler, Marin Sanudo, whose diaries provide a vivid account of the origin of an earlier lottery and of its fascination for the worldly citizens of Venice. On February 18th, 1522, Sanudo wrote:

A new method of commerce, giving hostage to fortune: it began in a small way. First anyone who wished to adventure had to give 20 soldi, then it grew to 3 lire, then to a ducat. And the prices (prizes) were carpets and other things; now there are money prizes, 200 ducats, and a piece of cloth of gold has been offered.

Sanudo identified the initiator of the lottery as Geronimo Bambarara, a second-hand clothes merchant in the Rialto district. Within a week, without any official blessing, the practice of offering wares through a money-- purchase draw had spread:

At present, in this Rialto district, nothing is done except put money on the lottery... the prizes mount up to 1,500 ducats... parcels of silk and wool, rich cloths and linings of all sorts, amber beads and even a live wild cat, horses etc...

To walk in the Rialto you had to shove through the throng of people who gathered to play. In the street of the goldsmiths and that of the jewellers, the crush was such that work was at a standstill. Sanudo compares the crowds with those seen on Ascension Day, an occasion of great religious fervour in Venice.

Within another week, the Venetian authorities had acted to control this explosion of activity. New ordinances forbade lotteries (lothi) unless sanctioned by magistrates. The initial aim was to prevent fraud: Sanudo records that a trickster who had falsified the draw was condemned to death. However, on February 28th, 1522, a prohibition on all private lotteries was decreed. The motive was simple: the state had recognised an easy source of revenue.

The Venetian Republic, being ever in need of funds to sustain its wars, took over the lotteries and imposed taxes on winnings. Prizes were at first money and valuables but soon the privileges and offices of the Republic itself were offered, especially rights to collect dues, for example, tolls for use of the Canale di S. Zulian, customs duty on the Sile and excise duty on wine. Then came real estate: portions of woodland at Lugnano and a house on the Canale Grande. However, during 1529, a time of plague, when the Republic grew desperate, there was little interest in a lottery where the prizes were letters of credit from the official who collected the tax on oil: the Venetians were not suckers.

In these lotteries, the draw mechanism was straightforward, though laborious. Into one urn went the gamblers’ slips, each bearing the name of the purchaser or an identifying motto. Into another went a corresponding number of tickets. Of these, many were blanks, bearing the admonition pacientia (patience); the others bore the word precio (price/ prize) and specified the prize which drawing the ticket would confer. Tickets were drawn simultaneously from both urns. The draw could last up to eleven days, since all tickets had to be drawn and matched. The lists of prizewinners recorded by Sanudo show that all social classes were involved: one list includes a nobleman, poor ‘indigenti’, an Albanese and a Cypriot, a nun and a group of priests.

The Venetians soon seized on the commercial possibilities. Thus, ‘bagarinaggio’ was practised – the cornering of the market in tickets – and selling at a premium the rights to tickets not yet drawn. Despite their hard-headedness, they were superstitious, as their choice of mottoes shows: ‘Buondi, bon anno, questa ventura non sia in vano!’ (God is good, the year is good – let this venture be not in vain) was one winning line.

The Venetians had telescoped into a few weeks what would take years of development in the English lottery. However, the key technical development of the modern lottery was to take place elsewhere and by an indirect means. In 1576, the Doge of Genoa, Andrea Doria, instituted a local government reform. In each year the five retiring members of the ruling colleges would be replaced by five men, selected by drawing lots from the pool of candidates. The method chosen was the extraction of numbered balls from a single urn, known as ‘Il Seminario’ containing 120 in total, corresponding to the candidates, identified by number. These chance events were ideal material for side bets. Betting on the outcome of elections was common but the new method gave some assurance of randomness and fairness. Betting on the numbers became hugely popular and, with a later reduction in the number of candidates, so was born the form of the lottery still in use today in Italy: the extraction of five numbers from a total of ninety.

At first, betting on the numbers drawn was a private affair. However, the possibilities for raising public revenue meant that the enterprise was taken over by the state in 1643. Similar enterprises opened in 1665 in Milan, Venice and Naples. The great technical benefit of the new system – the ‘draw according to Genoese custom’ – was that it obviated the lengthy drawing of all the tickets, though precautions were needed against fraud when winnings were claimed.

Originally, the bets were simple predictions, at low odds, that a particular number would be drawn. Later, operators of lotteries in other countries introduced bets on the prediction of up to all five of the numbers and the odds multiplied up spectacularly. These ‘improvements’ were then introduced in the Italian States.

The relationship between money and morality was never easy, especially in Rome. As the fascination with the game grew, so did the unease of the religious authorities. Thus popes Innocent XI and XII (1676-1700) sent forth threats of excommunication (against those who participated), but in vain. In Rome, several ‘prenditorie’ were appointed to exact heavy taxation on the lotteries but these officials provoked so much trouble that later popes reverted to traditional prohibitions. Eventually, the Holy See relented and the lottery in Rome was officially established in 1732.

One of the first fruits of Italian unification in 1859-61 was the establishment in 1863 of the unified Italian state lottery. Today, there are ten ‘ruote’ – the ‘wheels’ from which the draw is made – in Bari, Cagliari, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Rome, Turin and Venice and one can bet on single wheels or on combinations. All wheels draw five balls from ninety. Internet sites give information on the numbers drawn, explaining the technical terms and the history.

Unlike the present British lottery, the Italian lottery is a fixed-odds system. The following table lists the odds paid on correctly predicting one, two, three, four and all five of the balls drawn from a single 'wheel', compared with the theoretical odds:

Name of bet

Odds offered

Theoretical odds

1 ambata



2 ambo



3 terno



4 quaterna



5 cinquina




The odds offered are less than the theoretical odds: hugely so for the rarer chances. In this way the state makes its money: on average, half the total staked. Besides these simple bets, there are many possibilities for combination bets.

A feature of the Italian lottery throughout its history is the intense interest in occult methods of predicting the winning numbers. Foremost is the smorfia – a slang word meaning a wry grimace but also having overtones associated with the dream god Morpheus, son of Hypnos, God of Sleep. Morpheus is famed for his imitation of the grimaces and gestures of mankind and, according to Ovid, was sent to Halcyone to inform her by a dream of the fate of her husband.

The simplest of the smorfie consist of sets of ninety numbered pictures. They may be simple subjects, such as human figures, or may depict complicated actions. The gambler hopes to dream of these pictures and so foresee the winning numbers. There may be supplementary lists of numbered variations. In the Nuova Cabala del Vero Cappuccino di Mote Carmelo, (c. 1880), under the theme word ABATE (abbot), which is said to relate to the number 38, are the following variations, not all relating to actions decently associated with an abbot:

regolare (normal) 43, ammalato (ill) 28, in funzione (officiating) 18, che mangia (eating) 7, che scappa (running away) 15, travestito (disguised) 89, scandaloso (licentious) 80, stupratore (as a rapist) 23 …….

Books containing such information continue to have a lively sale in Italy. La Vera Antica Smorfia Napoletana, L’Antica Cabala del Lotto, La Vera Smorfia, La Grande Cabala – Smorfia are among several of those currently available. Their titles emphasise the lottery connection but also stress the links with the Cabala, a system of Jewish mystical theology developed in Spain in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, though thought to be based on a sixth-century manuscript. This drew on complex symbolism to assign numerical values to words and was adapted for Christian use during the Renaissance.

However, early almanacs, such as the Almanacco Perpetua of Rutilio Benincasa (Naples, 1593) rely on popular tradition rather than on descent from the Cabala. Development of the smorfie in the eighteenth century for lottery purposes was linked with the Cabala only because those wishing to play on the superstition of the credulous saw the advantage of claiming an antique heritage. Nowadays in Italy, cabala is synonymous with ‘occult’, often meaning lottery prediction. Electronic interpretation of dreams is available through an Internet site which responds with the appropriate number when prompted by an Italian word.

An interesting case that illustrates how the belief in the magic powers of the cabala was not always shared by those who made their living from them, is given in Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions by Charles Mackay (1841). It reveals an interaction between Italy and England and involves the arch-charlatan `Count of Cagliostro', `the last of the great pretenders to the philosopher's stone, and the water of life, and during his brief season of prosperity one of the most conspicuous characters of Europe'. The Count's real name was Joseph Balsamo, born at Palermo to humble parentage in about 1743. In 1776 the `Count and Countess' arrived in London. Cagliostro soon fell victim to a gang of swindlers, who sought to make money through his occult powers. They introduced to him a `Scottish nobleman' - in fact, a ruined gambler named Scot who borrowed 200 from him. In McKay's words:

Scot had often tried magical and cabalistic numbers, in the hope of discovering lucky numbers in the lottery or at the roulette tables. He had in his possession a cabalistic manuscript, containing various arithmetical combinations of the kind, which he submitted to Cagliostro… Cagliostro took the manuscript and studied it; but, as he himself informs us, with no confidence in its truth. He however predicted twenty as the successful number for the 6th of November following. Scot ventured a small sum upon this number, out of the two hundred pounds he had borrowed, and won. Cagliostro, incited by this success, prognosticated number twenty-five for the next drawing. Scot tried again, and won a hundred guineas. The numbers fifty-five and fifty-seven were announced with equal success for the 18th of the same month, to the no small astonishment and delight of Cagliostro...’

Eventually, though, the Count discovered Scot was a swindler and abandoned him.

The development of the English Lottery was documented by William Hone in his Every-Day Book of 1827, following the ‘last lottery’, held in 1826. The first recorded English lottery was drawn in 1569, ‘for the reparations of the havens and the strength of the realme and towards such other public good works’. There were 400,000 lots (tickets) of 10 shillings each; ‘prices’ (prizes) were ‘as well of ready money as of plate’. Drawing commenced on January 11th and went on until May 6th. Despite the inconveniences associated with this method, the English state lottery seems never to have progressed to anything resembling the Genoese system until its twentieth-century reincarnation. This is in contrast to other European countries, which enthusiastically adopted the ‘five balls from ninety’ system.

In England, the undesirable practices so speedily devised by the Venetians were slow to appear. By the eighteenth century ‘forestalling’ (cornering the market by buying multiple tickets for re-sale) was occurring. The drawing of lots was likewise not free from fraud. As in Italy, it was the custom to employ an ‘innocent’ schoolboy. However, in 1775, William Tramplet, one of the blue-coat boys of Christ’s Hospital drawing the state lottery at Guildhall, confessed that he had been given money by a man to conceal a ticket, whose number the man had used to place bets that it would win. The next day, as instructed, the boy put his hand, holding the ticket concealed, into the wheel and then pretended to draw it out. Following this fraud, rigid procedures were introduced to ensure that the boys’ hands were empty, their pockets sewn up and their coats buttoned. The boys were selected on the morning of the draw as groups of twelve, from whom the actual drawer was selected ‘promiscuously’.

Our modern British lottery is admittedly different from the Italian pattern. It involves the extraction of six balls (plus a bonus ball), not five; there are forty-nine balls rather than ninety; and it is a sweepstake, not a true fixed-odds lottery. Nevertheless, it has shown us scenes of greed and triumph on the Venetian scale, has employed the techniques of Genoa to provide near-instant gratification, and has provoked the exercise of comparable ingenuity in the matter of fraud and its avoidance. Superstition regarding ‘lucky numbers’ is strong, though less organised than in Italy.

Perhaps the most frightening lesson is that a simple administrative reform like the Legge Doria can resound down four centuries with such consequences.

Hone's prophetic words regarding the `last lottery' of 1826 are worth recalling:

Here, at last, end the notices respecting the Lottery, of which much has been said, because of all depraving institutions it had the largest share in debasing society while it existed; and because, after all, perhaps, the monster is ‘only scotched not killed’.

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