La Loterie de l’École Royale Militaire

[Casanova] has a carriage and lackeys, and is attired resplendently.  He has two beautiful diamond rings, two tasteful pocket watches, snuff-boxes set in gold, and always plenty of lace.  He has gained admittance, I don’t know how, to the best Parisian society.  …He has a stake in a lottery in Paris and brags that this gives him a large income…He is quite full of himself and stupidly pompous.  In a word, he is unbearable.  Except when he speaks of his escape, which he recounts admirably. (Private letter from Giustinia Wynne to Andrea Memmo, quoted from Ian Kelly’s biography ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’)

How did this transformation, within the space of less than eighteen months, from Venetian fugitive to membership of the Parisian glitterati, come about?  One of the most fascinating aspects of Casanova’s second visit to Paris is his part in the creation of what was to become easily the largest lottery in the history of Europe up to that time and through which he made one of the quickest fortunes in the eighteenth century.

The existence of lotteries can be traced back to antiquity but the large-scale modern lotteries initially took hold in the city-states of Renaissance Italy such as Genoa and Venice, driven by large, concentrated, urban populations with sophisticated commercial and social infrastructures.  The first legal lottery in France was approved by Francis I in 1539 but lotteries didn’t become a fixture of the landscape until the reign of Louis XV, almost two-hundred years later.  Religious anxiety had a lot to do with this.  For a start, any kind of gambling was seen as dabbling with fate, and fate was the preserve of God (the Latin ‘lotto’ means ‘destiny’ while the English word ‘lot’, as in ‘one’s lot in life’, borrowed from Dutch, means ‘fate’).  Then there was vanity, encouraging people to reach above their status, with all the unsettling implications that might have for the divine and established order of society.  And, of course, lotteries appealed to the selfish rather than the altruistic. On the other hand, though, they were a terrific way to raise cash.  To placate these religious and moral concerns, therefore, lotteries, up until the eighteenth century, had two accepted uses: to pay down government debt in times of exceptional need (usually war); to support charity and charitable projects (although this could be interpreted quite broadly).  Furthermore, a lottery could only be a one-off, temporary measure.

By the eighteenth century there had been a shift in attitudes as more liberal moralists pushed the argument that lotteries were not bad in themselves but that their ethical value depended upon how the money raised was used.   At the same time, eighteenth-century France was witnessing a major economic expansion alongside a consumer revolution, tempering further the force of earlier moral objections.  As people across all social strata increasingly possessed more material goods, the active desire to possess was less likely to acquire social opprobrium (it should be pointed out, however, that the idea of luxury retained strong negative connotations of immorality and selfishness).  These forces, along with the seemingly ever-present need of the monarchy to find methods (direct or indirect) to fund its debt, paved the way for lotteries to become more permanent.

The proliferation of lotteries under the early reign of Louis XV prompted royal intervention and stricter controls.  In 1727, three continuous charitable lotteries were established in Paris and the rest were banned.  They were titled the trois petites lotteries and were operated to help fund religious communities, the Paris foundlings’ hospital and the construction of churches.  By mid-century these lotteries were booming and had become part of daily life.  Parisians bought millions of tickets and street hawkers, such as the one above, were everywhere.  The price of a ticket, at 20 sous (one livres) was relatively affordable.  To put this into perspective, an unskilled worker made 20-30 sous a day and a standard 4lb loaf cost 8-9 sous.  Even the poorest citizens were able to club together to get hold of a ticket.  Interestingly, at the same time as the lottery market was expanding and providing more funds overall, an increasing percentage of those funds was being creamed off for profit – ie a smaller percentage of the money raised was going to charity and prizes.

It was at this juncture of change as the old cultural forces of the ancien regime encountered the currents of a modern commercial and consumerist society that Casanova appeared on the scene.

In 1751, under the patronage of Louis XV, the École Royale Militaire was founded.  Its purpose was the military education of impoverished French nobility but very quickly it ran into financial problems.  By 1757, however, France was immersed in the ruinously expensive Seven Years War, cash was sparse and supporters of the institution, such as Madame de Pompadour and its First Intendant, financier Joseph de Pâris-Duverney, were looking for ways to raise funds.

Abbé de Bernis, shortly to become secretary for foreign affairs and with whom Casanova had become acquainted when he was the French ambassador in Venice, introduced the Venetian to the prime movers in a scheme to raise money for the troubled École Royale Militaire.  These included Jean de Boulogne, the king’s treasurer, Giovanni Calzabigi, secretary to the ambassador of the Two Sicilies, Paris-Duverney and Madame de Pompadour.  The scheme, of course, was a lottery.

According to Casanova’s memoirs Calzabigi had proposed a Genoese style lottery but there were doubts.  Winnings from the trois petites lotteries were limited according to the number of tickets sold.  The Genoese model was different.  The prize was a fixed ratio to what the individual had paid.  The more balls correctly guessed, the higher the odds.  It also had more potential to allow gamblers greater freedom in the way they gambled than the old raffle-style lotteries.  The main problem was that the Genoese lottery could lead to a huge loss if a player, or players, bet heavily at large odds and won.  Casanova, however, who had had a similar scheme in mind himself, fully supported the Genoese model.  In fact, he argued that if the lottery was backed by the Royal Treasury and did, on the first draw, make a loss then its success would be assured.  Such an event would bridge the gap between the long-term statistical reality that favoured the banker (if carefully designed) and the imagination and hopes of the gambler.  In his doctoral thesis ‘The Wheel of Fortune in Eighteenth-Century France’ (from which has been drawn most of the information in this account of the French lotteries) R D Kruckeberg writes:

As Casanova told the great financers, “the thing is to dazzle.” This lottery, as Casanova conceived it, would not be some cautious, risk-averse charitable enterprise; rather, it would be an aggressive, risk-seeking commercial enterprise which accepted an unabashed ethos of consumption.  Casanova’s model of the consumer was the gambler who was driven by the desire to win.
(‘The Wheel of Fortune in Eighteenth-Century France’, p110)

Another key reservation with regards to the Loterie de l’École Militaire related to the school’s military ethos.  To fund the school using revenues generated on the hope of personal gain seemed to undermine soldierly values of sacrifice and altruism.  Kruckeberg identifies the outlooks of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Giacomo Casanova as representative of the broader moral and intellectual conflict highlighted by the Loterie de l’École Militaire:

Few writers shook the intellectual foundations of the eighteenth century and had as much influence as Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  And there are perhaps few people from the eighteenth century who capture the imagination more than Giacomo Casanova.  These two men are almost dichotomously opposed intellectually.  Rousseau was the notorious moralist who disdained society and luxury. Casanova found polite society and material excess irresistible.  Indeed, Casanova is almost caricaturized as the stereotypical eighteenth-century libertine. Rousseau very much tried to ground and plant himself as a “citizen of Geneva,” while Casanova was a widely celebrated itinerant “adventurer.” Seeming to have no roots, Casanova travelled throughout Europe and made himself at ease wherever he may have been.  Rousseau celebrated the genuineness of austere simplicity; Casanova celebrated the artifice of audacious luxuriance.  In Rousseau’s delineation of the general will, we have the most distinct pronunciation of selflessness. In Casanova’s delineation of the ethos of libertinage, we have the most distinct pronunciation of egoism.  It is very much the tension between these two different self-constructions which played out with the Loterie de l’École Militaire.
(R D Kruckeberg, ‘The Wheel of Fortune in Eighteenth-Century France’, p97)

Impressed by his arguments and his facility with numbers and statistics, Casanova was signed up as one of the lottery’s directors and allowed to open up six offices, five of which he sold immediately.  On October 15, 1757, the official order establishing the lottery was presented and on April 18th, 1758 the first drawing took place.  The lottery was to be permanent and continuous.  Moreover, it was to be a national enterprise with offices established throughout France.  In scale, form and organisation it was unlike any other lottery that had gone before and its wild success would seem both to fully endorse Casanova’s insight into gambler psychology and underscore the new consumerist forces at large in French society.

In all the great houses I went to, and at the theatres, as soon as I was seen, everybody gave me money, asking me to lay it out as I liked and to send them the tickets, as, so far, the lottery was strange to most people. I thus got into the way of carrying about me tickets of all sorts, or rather of all prices, which I gave to people to choose from, going home in the evening with my pockets full of gold. This was an immense advantage to me, a kind of privilege which I enjoyed to the exclusion of the other receivers who were not in society, and did not drive a carriage like myself—no small point in one’s favour, in a large town where men are judged by the state they keep. I found I was thus able to go into any society, and to get credit everywhere.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, Under the Leads, Chapter XXXII)

(Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the unabridged London edition of 1894 (Gutenberg project)

Dave Thompson (2017)

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