Illustration by Jeffrey Vallance

THE FAçADE OF THE NEW VENETIAN RESORT HOTEL Casino in Las Vegas, the latest casino to feature a “fine art” theme, is a pastiche of Venice, Italy's most famous architectural monuments — all crammed together. The casino imported an architectural historian from Venice to oversee the construction of the building while craftsmen labored for months in the heat of suburban Vegas churning out a horde of faux-marble statuary, sculpted in Styrofoam, coated with fiberglass. The interior of the casino is a conglomeration of “faithful reproductions” of Venice's most esteemed artists from the Golden Age with, for the first time ever in a casino, serious contemporary art. One thing you won't see in Vegas-Venice is statues blackened by years of pollution and pigeons, or murky canals filled with sewage. Everything here is brand spankin' new.

As seen from Vegas Boulevard, the Venetian appears as some kind of weird distortion of the buildings that surround Venice's famous St. Mark's Square (except for the conspicuoulsly missing Basilica San Marco), split by the Grand Canal. The casino entrance is a reconstruction of the Doge's Palace, originally built in the 14th century as the residence of the Venetian head of state, the doge (similar to a duke). This is like using the White House as the entrance to a casino. Adjacent to the Doge's Palace is the baroque Bridge of Sighs, which originally led from the palace to a prison (the “sighs” refers to the wailing of the condemned prisoners); here, the Bridge of Sighs connects the high-limit slots room to a fancy high rollers' lounge. (The sighs now come from gamblers experiencing streaks of bad luck.) In Venice, the picturesque 16th-century

Rialto Bridge crosses the Grand Canal. In Vegas, the famous bridge is a moving sidewalk pumping thousands of tourists daily into the facility's majestic entrance.

Also attached to the casino's structure are two 15th-century buildings, the fabulously gothic Ca d'Oro (“House of Gold”), the walls of which were originally embellished with gold; and the Contarini-Fasan Palace, traditionally believed to be the house of Desdemona from Shakespeare's Othello. Across the Vegas Grand Canal is a full-size reconstruction of the Campanile, a tower at the base of which lies the Loggetta, or Hall of the Palace Guard, as entryway to the moving sidewalk. Beside the Loggetta, the Marcian Library, ornately decorated with replica statues by world-renowned Venetian sculptors, is also home to Madame Tussaud's Celebrity Encounter wax museum, featuring such legendary Vegas icons as Liberace, Debbie Reynolds, Elvis, Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, Siegfried & Roy and Frank Sinatra. On your way out of the museum, you'll be confronted with an audio-animatronic Elvis, who sings and gyrates until he dies. Elvis' wispy spirit then floats over the audience, terminating in a red, white and blue starburst. This is the first time I've seen the ghost of Elvis presented to a mass audience.

My favorite architectural element, though, is the 15th-century arch of the Torre dell'Orologio, or Clock Tower, which has been turned into the casino's flashing marquee. High atop the fabulous tower, bronze figures of Moors strike a huge bell on the hour. The Vegasy archway includes some remarkable architectural details, including a huge disk with the signs of the zodiac in relief and a magnificent statue of the Winged Lion of St. Mark, whose body, according to 14th-century hagiographers, was packed in a barrel of pork. And the crowning touch is a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus. Yes — Baby Jesus on a casino marquee!

Just as the art world has almost recovered from the unveiling of Steve Wynn's Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, the Venetian Casino delivers its knockout punch: a contemporary gallery with fine art rivaling that of the Venice Biennale. Before you go to the art gallery, I suggest you walk through the Venetian's three resplendent halls of fake masterworks. First, see the Triumph of Venice by Bambini on the hotel lobby's ceiling, near the main entrance. Then gaze at four heroic scenes by Tiepolo â in the grand dome over the golden fountain. As you stroll down the Lobby Colonnade, look up at the barrel-vault overhead to see works by Titian and Tintoretto. In the Doge's Great Room, cast your eyes heavenward for The Apotheosis of Venice by Veronese.

The Grand Canal Shoppes, on the second floor, have a second Grand Canal where you can take a gondola ride (courtesy of a singing gondolier) to a second St. Mark's Square. The second Square's second Clock Tower (with a second Blessed Virgin and Baby Jesus) serves as the façade for Qualità Fine Art. Qualità features art by nationally and internationally known artists, but its mark of distinction is that it also shows Vegas artists, including Robert Acuna, Tim Bavington, Jack Hallberg, Victoria Reynolds and Yek. Directed by Nancy Hoffman of Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York. Qualità is the first contemporary-art space in a casino.

Outside the gallery, masked Carnival characters perform their zany antics beneath a 70-foot ceiling fixed to resemble an early-evening Venetian sky. The Carnival (from the Italian carne vale, “farewell to meat”) is the last chance for revelry, merrymaking and taboo breaking before Lent, when one must abstain from pleasures of the flesh. Venice was home to the 16th-century Commedia dell'Arte, the theater group that invented such characters as the harlequin and the clown. Pick yourself out a colorful Murano glass clown from one of the Venetian's glass-art shops.

ABOVE ALL ELSE, THE VENETIAN IS HEAVY on Christian apocalyptic iconography. Besides the Winged Lion of Revelation, used as the casino's logo, and the Madonna and Child, the Casino's embellishments include the statue of the Archangel Michael standing with sword drawn — a decorative motif on the Doge's Palace — and a golden Archangel Gabriel perched high atop the Campanile. A monolithic statue of St. Theodore with lance in hand stands triumphantly on a dragon (Satan) on top of one of the casino's entryway columns. Figures of horribly grotesque demons are used as architectural detail.

Some citizens of Vegas believe in a Second Coming, when the golden statue of the Archangel Gabriel will spring to life and blow his mighty horn, heralding the end of the world. Many believe that Vegas is a modern-day Gomorrah that a vengeful God is planning to punish. If in fact Vegas is Sin City and the approaching millennium is the biblical Armageddon, then the Venetian Casino may well be ground zero for the Apocalypse. What a damn town!


Professor Vallance divides his time between Las Vegas and Lapland.

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