CASERTA, Italy - If you are the Bourbon King Charles VII, His Holy Royal Majesty, King of Naples and Sicily and Jerusalem, Infante of Spain, Duke of Parma and Piacenza, and the son of the King of Spain and the Queen of Saxony, when you say you want a new palace, the only question you are asked is “how big”.
|The Reggia di Caserta|
“Give me a magnificent new royal court in a place safe from attacks from the sea. I want it to be far from the congestion of Naples and the revolt-prone Neapolitans,” Charles said to Italian architect/engineer, Luigi Vanvitelli, “and make it look something like Versailles, but just a little bit bigger.”
What Vanvitelli gave him was not just bigger than Versailles, but far more beautiful. He gave him the magnificent Reggia di Caserta, a 2,529,519 square foot palace, with four large interior courtyards, 1,200 rooms, 1,742 windows, two dozen apartments, including a 25 room Royal Apartment, and 34 splendid marble staircases. There is also a full size theatre that replicates the beautiful San Carlo opera house in Naples.
Even the gardens were glorious, and they soon came to be known as the most beautiful garden in all of Europe. As for the King’s safety, Vinvitelli kept the Royal troops close at hand, housed in barracks within the palace.
Historians have written that the first time Charles saw the architect’s model for Caserta, it brought him to tears. Caserta truly was the grandest, most sumptuous palace he had ever seen. But it wasn’t the size of the building that won the King’s heart, it was its beauty.
The first stone was laid on January 20, 1752, the King’s 36th birthday, and work moved along at a brisk pace until 1759 when Charles’ father, the King of Spain, died. As it was Charles’ responsibility to accede to the Spanish throne, it meant that he would have to leave Naples. As a result he never spent a single night in Caserta.
After Charles left Italy, work slowed down on the palazzo, and when Luigi Vanvitelli died in 1774, the building was still far from being completed. Carlo Vanvitelli, Luigi’s son and then other architects, who had trained at the school of Vanvitelli, stepped in, and in the early years of the new century, they put the finishing touches on the grand royal residence.
Caserta became a wonder of the world. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. It was the largest palace, and one of the largest buildings constructed in Europe during the entire 18th century. In 1997, the palace was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site; its nomination described it as “rivaling Versailles and the Royal Palace in Madrid.”
The judges at UNESCO praised Caserta for the exceptional way it brings together a magnificent palace with its park and gardens, as well as natural woodland and hunting lodges. They ended by saying Caserta was "the last example of spectacular Baroque architecture”. It marked the end of an era.
Fast forward to the 1940’s, and Caserta was no longer fulfilling its role as a royal palace, but serving as the headquarters of the US and British Armies. Its place in history was sealed in 1945 when Germany signed the terms of unconditional surrender of its forces in Italy at the palace.
When the war was over, and Italy started getting back on its feet, the palace changed roles again and became a backdrop for some of the films being made by both American studios and the Italian film industry at Rome’s Cinecitta.
In 1954, a young Gina Lollobrigida, whose wardrobe seemed to consist entirely of snug fitting strapless gowns, is seen singing and dancing her way around the palace in a film called “Beautiful But Dangerous”.
In the American film Anzio, starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Falk, in one scene a soldier is shown swinging from an elaborate chandelier in the palace ballroom, One can only hope it was a replica, and not the real thing.
George Lucas used the palace for his “Star Wars” movies. It was Queen Amidala’s royal palace on Naboo in The Phantom Menace, and in 2002’s “Attack of the Clones”, it was the palace of Queen Jamillia.
And through it all the royal palace held its head high and kept its dignity. Today the magnificent and breathtaking Reggia di Caserta is an overlooked Italian treasures. It’s hard to say if the problem is its location, or if tourists just don’t know about it. It must be the latter for the Royal Palace of Caserta is just a 45-minute train ride from Naples, and a short five-minute walk from the station.
Once there, you can take a guided tour, or tour the palace on your own and marvel at the gold and marble decorated rooms, including the Throne Room and the 25 room Royal Apartment. But the highlight of the Reggia is the sprawling garden, which stretches out about two miles behind the palace.
If you follow the line of reflecting pools, the ones ringed with statues, you’ll end up at a 256 ft waterfall at the far end of the grounds. And then there is the artificial lake where mock naval battles used to be staged for the entertainment of the court. To insure an adequate supply of water, an aqueduct was built specifically to feed the many fountains and water features within the grounds, including the reflecting pools, the waterfall and the lake.
The complex also includes a bookshop and restaurant, and bicycles can be rented to fully explore the grounds.
The Caserta is closed on Tuesdays, and also on
January 1st, Easter Monday, May 1st, and December 25th. Some of the closures extend to the days before and after a holiday, so its best to check the Caserta website before you go. Also, closing times vary depending on the season. For more information check the web sites below.
Copyright © Phyllis Macchioni 2016