Monaco takes a gamble: how the Casino de Monte-Carlo came to be
To understand how the Casino de Monte-Carlo came to be, you have to go back in time to 1848 when Menton and Roquebrune, then part of the Principality of Monaco, declared themselves free towns and placed themselves under the protection of the Kingdom of Sardinia. As a result, Monaco lost 90% of its territory, which was henceforth limited to the Rock, home to the Prince’s Palace, and a few surrounding patches of arid land. The Principality was thus deprived of its main source of income – citrus farming – and the very viability of the Principality was brought into question. But what could one do on such a tiny piece of land?
The distant town of Homburg, a small principality neighbouring Prussia, had succeeded in dealing with a situation similar to that of Monaco by legalising an activity prohibited almost everywhere else in Europe: gambling in casinos. An entrepreneur by the name of François Blanc had successfully set up a very profitable business in Homburg. This consisted of attracting the nobility and upper middle classes from all over Europe to this tiny territory, seating these wealthy visitors at the gaming tables and thus guaranteeing a source of prosperity for the town that was the envy of all its neighbours.
Meanwhile, not far from Monaco, Nice had begun to welcome well-off tourists who were taking advantage of the brand new railway to come and enjoy the mild climate.
Monaco didn’t wait long before trying to achieve what Homburg had already proved was possible.
The birth of Monte-Carlo
The first gaming room opened its doors in 1856. There were many problems, however, and things were off to a chaotic start. Monaco called on François Blanc and his savoir-faire to remedy the situation. A proper casino was built on the site of today’s Casino, and a company was set up to run it: the Société des Bains de Mer. By 1863, everything was in place to launch what would later be referred to as the luxury tourist industry.
In 1864, a luxury hotel was built opposite the casino, the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo. A new neighbourhood gradually emerged. It was called “Monte-Carlo” as a tribute to the Sovereign Prince, Charles III.
In 1898, the Casino’s Atrium took on its present-day form: a magnificent vestibule with 28 marble columns (all in imitation marble, except one!).
It leads to the Salon de l’Europe, now lit by eight Bohemian crystal chandeliers, each weighing over 150 kilos. Visitors who raise their eyes to the ceiling will notice the bull’s eye windows in each corner, a sort of video surveillance system before its time used to keep a discreet eye on the gaming tables!
In 1903, the casino was extended with the creation of the Salle Blanche, lit by huge caryatids bearing lights. Three Florentine Graces are painted on the ceiling, and the artist has rather mischievously given them the faces of three famous courtesans of the time: Cléo de Mérode, Liane de Pougy and La Belle Otéro.
The Casino was again enlarged in 1910 with the inauguration of the Salle Médecin, offering breathtaking luxury in the Empire style. Its mahogany panelling is quite remarkable. Today, this room accommodates the Casino’s private gaming rooms.
Charles Garnier Opera House
However, the real gem of the Casino de Monte-Carlo is undoubtedly the Salle Garnier, inaugurated in 1879 and built by Charles Garnier, the architect who designed the Paris Opera House. It was built in just eight months and construction went on day and night. Gas was used for lighting at night and countless trips on the railway between Paris and Monaco were needed to transport the necessary building materials.
Recently restored, the Salle Garnier is one of Monaco’s masterpieces. Even today, it bears witness to the extravagance and audacity characterising the construction of the Casino de Monte-Carlo.