multimedia  › Arts and Leisure

Discovering Italy: the Reggia di Caserta

by Marco Carminati

I confess that I would have liked to have been present for the laying of the first stone of the Royal Palace of Caserta. According to the chronicles of the time, it was a spectacular event.
The year was 1752. The chosen date was January 20, a Thursday, coinciding with the 36th birthday of King Charles III of Bourbon. A large number of soldiers in dress uniform arranged themselves in four rows so as to map out the exact plan of the future building, 250 meters long and 210 wide.

At the center of the immense quadrangle, the King and his wife Amalia of Saxony laid the building's first stone. Above it, the architect who designed the Palace, the famous Luigi Vanvitelli, placed a stone cube bearing an inscription for good luck: “May this Palace and the Bourbons' offspring last until this stone goes back to heaven on its own.”

Silver medals - forged from a design by Vanvitelli and depicting the King and Queen's profiles and a bird's eye view of the Palace - were thrown into the foundations.

From that memorable day, and for the next twenty-one years, Vanvitelli wholly devoted himself to supervising the construction site, employing legions of workers, laborers, carpenters and putting to work even women, convicts, prisoners and exotic animals. He never stopped, except for a forced break in 1764, when a swarm of impoverished people occupied the site in protest.

Luigi Vanvitelli died in 1773, literally on site, in a little house next to the Palace. The post of “First Royal Architect” was taken up by his son Charles, who for twenty more years continued working in Caserta, following his father's drawings, engravings and beautiful wooden models.

During the reign of Ferdinand IV, son of Charles, he completed the state apartments and the garden fountains. In 1799, Naples fell under the control of Napoleon. Under Joseph Bonaparte and, later, Joachim Murat, the decoration works on the state apartments continued, and were completed upon the Bourbons' return to Naples.

It is rather obvious that the Real Fabbrica workshop in charge of building the palace aspired to the grandeur of Versailles. But why was this new Versailles built precisely in Caserta? For at least two reasons: the beauty and safety of the place. The Palace, in fact, would be built in an extremely fertile and lush corner of Campania Felix, theatrically enclosed by the Tifatini Mountains in the background.

In addition, it would be located in a very strategic position with respect to security, at the right distance from Naples and the riffraff who overpopulated it, at the right distance from the sea in the event of a maritime attack, and at the right distance from Mount Vesuvius in the event of a sudden eruption.

In conceiving the building's and the park's design, Vanvitelli worked on a large scale, acting more like a set designer (which he actually was) that an architect. He conceived a huge mansion, scenically set in an extremely vast surrounding environment.

The “perspective telescope” was intended to start from the road to Naples, a long stretch crossed by a canal and pointing to the sea (from here, when the weather is nice you can see Ischia and Capri). The long straight road would then cross, with no barriers in between, the building's ground floor, coming out into the gardens behind it, which, continuing in a straight line, would reach the hills nearly five kilometers away, animated by five waterfalls, as well as by fish farms and by fountains decorated with statues.

The water, gushing copiously from a fake cave on the mountain, would be brought here through a massive aqueduct designed by Vanvitelli.