Cultural casinos, the genuine parliaments of the 19th century

In almost any Spanish city it is easy to recommend a visit to the casino building. Although the first thought may go back to images of gambling and betting, most often it was the place where the cultural casino was, or still is, located. These institutions emerged in the 19th century, showing that the world was changing. As well as allowing their members to play muse or pool, they served as epicentres of debate. They hosted gatherings, associations and later even athenaeums. A mixture that formed decisive spaces for the advancement of Spanish society and culture.

Sala árabe del Real Casino de Murcia

Arab room of the Royal Casino of Murcia. | Shutterstock

From discussion houses to cultural casinos

The association between the word casino and gambling is not accidental. This aspect, as well as the talk that usually accompanies this activity, was already the protagonist of spaces before the 19th century. These are the tablajes, garitos or discussion houses. In short, these places were dedicated to giving cards to the gamblers. The gambling houses went from dens to more or less decent premises and were especially popular in the Modern Age.

The Golden Age was especially long for them. Important writers such as Quevedo and Góngora came there, but also characters of all kinds.While they were bankrupting each other, they could see first-hand the decline of the Ancien Régime. The discussion houses, a euphemism, were supposed to be a little more high-class and gave rise to discussions while cards were being dealt or a game was being played at a board game of the time.

The cultural conversations had other settings to go through, such as literary academies. These spread during the same period, often promoted by nobles. Based on a humanist spirit, they served to a large extent as a precedent for enlightened institutions such as the current Spanish Royal Academy. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the literary salons, private meetings led by women and of mixed character, a custom imported from France, are also noteworthy. However, the Ancien Régime did not allow the concept of the casino to develop. Liberalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie were still missing to make them possible.

Casino de Cartagena

Casino of Cartagena. | Shutterstock

Places for a new elite

After the War of Independence, Spain was in a total crisis. Liberals and traditionalists clashed on any kind of concept. However, Europe was boiling over and showing examples of the bourgeoisie already being an agent to be reckoned with. A struggle that ended in conflict, but also in the opening up of previously unthinkable spaces in the country. The cultural casinos are a clear example. They mixed legal gambling, at least officially, with the expansion of culture and individual freedoms. The death of a tyrant like Ferdinand VII helped greatly in their proliferation.

Parte superior de la fachada del casino de Madrid

Upper part of the façade of the Madrid casino. | Wikimedia

These institutions were created following the English club model. They were thus male, bourgeois and often elitist environments. Of “good society”, as they used to describe themselves. The key issue is that blue blood was replaced by the pragmatism of the time. Politicians, businessmen and nobles got together to have fun in style. At the same time, they generated networks of contacts based on the exclusivity that being a member of the casino brought. Entry was usually by recommendation. In this way, a member of the upper class was sponsored by another member of the society to gain membership.

Spanish cultural casinos also had Italian influence. In that country, the associations usually incorporated both a café gathering and a gaming space. For example, the Madrid Casino, one of the most exclusive in the country, originated in the Café de Sólito. Moreover, the very name “casino” comes from the Italian language. No doubt they were eclectic places, like the 19th century itself. A spirit that is transferred to its buildings, which range from the Mudejar and Arabic to the neoclassical. For example, the Royal Casino of Murcia shows off its variety of styles in a spectacular way.

Sala Pompeyana del Real Casino de Murcia

Pompeian Hall of the Royal Casino of Murcia. | Shutterstock

Regarding the most common games in casinos, pool was one of the undisputed stars. The game caused a furore all over Europe and it was not going to be less in Spain. Acquiring a table was a priority, almost as much as having a good piano. Cards were another common activity, with different types of games including mus. There was also space for chess games. The libraries were another basic room.

In addition to the social gatherings and the recreational factor, there were activities such as reading the press together, which often led to debate. They also incorporated spaces such as halls for dances and parties or rooms for theatre performances or concerts. Although they tried at first to maintain a certain political neutrality, over the years the clubs became more politicised and served as a base for typical 19th-century conflicts. Thus, the Madrid Casino was one of the places where La Gloriosa, the revolution of 1868, was born.

Biblioteca del casino de Madrid

Library of the Madrid Casino. | Wikimedia

Places condemned to adapt

If the bourgeoisie was the first to take the lead in the 19th century, others would soon follow. Artists and workers emulated the concept of casinos. Not surprisingly, they also wanted access to culture and entertainment. The relatively progressive atmosphere embodied by this type of space led to the growth, often directly alongside them, of more open leisure associations. The clearest example is in Soria. Its Casino Numancia saw the light in the middle of the century and almost a couple of decades later the Círculo de la Amistad did. Both were located in the same building and had very similar missions. Finally, in 1961 they merged, having survived until today.

Casino de Llanes

Llanes Casino. | Shutterstock

Parallel cultural circles flourished, especially in the final years of Isabella II’s reign and after the Glorious One. Initially, they were more artistic than the clubs, making them the ideal space for creators and patrons. This does not mean that important thinkers and writers participated in the life of the clubs, as Gerardo Diego or Machado did in Soria. Likewise, casinos diversified their origin. It was common for the guilds to have their own space in the form of this type of institution. Their popularity made them the most abundant type of recreational and cultural association of the 19th century, with almost half of the records.

Sala del Circulo de Amistad Numancia

Room of the Circulo de Amistad Numancia. | Turismo de Soria

Another institution similar to casinos during the 19th century was the athenaeums. These centres were more concerned with science and the arts than with entertainment, a key difference, as well as generally having a more popular character. They also used to hold courses. In Soria, the cultural casino was the origin of the first associations of this type. Meanwhile, in Barcelona the Ateneo Barcelonés and the Casino Mercantil merged during the last third of the 19th century. The workers’ movement also created its own similar spaces, such as the paradigmatic example of the Ateneo-Casino Obrero in Gijón.

Biblioteca del Casino-Ateneo Obrero de Gijón

Library of the Casino-Ateneo Obrero in Gijón. | Wikimedia

The new century did not stop the creation of cultural casinos. In 1910, the indianos of Llanes completed the construction of the new building that was the headquarters of their society until 1990. From the same period is that of Manresa, whose club no longer exists. Montecasino in Albacete or Espinardo in Murcia are other examples. During the 20th century they continued to be important centres in a Spain that used to be depressed. Some more or less preserved their exclusive customs, such as the llanisco, the Royal of Murcia, the one in Madrid or the one in Cartagena. Others decided to throw away something popular, such as the Numancia or the Casino Alianza Poblenou in Barcelona. Today they are centenary entities whose buildings are essential visits to find out how a series of social changes began that allowed the country to evolve until the present day.


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