Antechambers of the Royal Apartments: (left/centre) heraldic symbols (three fleurs-de-lis) of the Bourbon family; (right) statue portraying Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma from 1586 to 1592, and Governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1578 to 1592, being crowned by Victory. The statue was made in 1598 by Simone Moschino for Palazzo Farnese in Rome
In 1714 Elisabeth Farnese, daughter of the Duke of Parma, married Philip V, the first King of Spain of the French House of Bourbon and a widower with three sons. In 1721 Philip ordered the construction of a countryside residence at La Granja de San Ildefonso, near Segovia. He did so at the request of his young wife who had a prominent role in the choice of the mainly Italian architects and decorators of the palace and its gardens. This was made visible by large coats of arms of the Kingdom of Spain and of the Farnese (six fleurs-de-lis).
In 1731 Elisabeth managed to secure the Duchy of Parma to her first son Charles. In 1734, during the Polish Succession War, Spanish troops helped Charles to conquer the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, at the time a possession of the Austrian House of Habsburg. Charles' coronation took place in the Cathedral of Palermo in 1735.
(above) Royal Palace; (below) view towards Mount Vesuvius from the Royal Apartments
After the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 put an end to the turbulent period of the European Succession Wars, Charles began to think of building a countryside palace similar to that where he had spent his childhood and obviously similar to Versailles, the prototype of such residences.
Charles summoned the architect Luigi Vanvitelli to Naples for the express purpose of erecting the royal residence at Caserta, about 20 miles north of the capital. In a sense Caserta is the overwhelmingly impressive swansong of the Italian Baroque. The scale both of the palace with its 1,200 rooms and of the entire layout is immense.
Rudolf Wittkower - Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 - Penguin Books 1958
Luigi Vanvitelli, son of Gaspar van Wittel, a painter known for his landscape views of Rome, began his career as an architect in the 1730s at Ancona (the Lazzaretto and other buildings). In Rome he designed the austere fašade of Convento di S. Agostino and gave a new orientation to S. Maria degli Angeli, where he became familiar with a very large scale building. The experience he made in these two Roman projects had an influence on the design of the new palace.
(left) Slightly projecting wing; (right) central section of the fašade
The entire structure rises above a high ground floor treated with horizontal bands of
sharply cut rustication. Projecting pavilions, planned to be crowned by towers in the
French tradition and articulated by a giant order, frame each of the long fronts. The pavilions are balanced in the centre of the main and garden fronts by a powerful pedimented temple motif. Wittkower
As soon as the autumnal rains had refreshed the earth, I ventured to make some inland journeys. Caserta was the object of one excursion; it lies almost sixteen miles from the capital, at the foot of a lofty ridge of hills, the outskirts of those mountains that cover the greatest part of the northern provinces. It was in its origin a hamlet, built by some families that escaped from the ruins of Capua (..) Charles there caused to be erected, according to the designs of Vanvitelli, a palace which, in size and solidity, surpasses almost every royal edifice in Europe. The vast dimensions of its apartments, the bold span of their ceilings, the excellence and beauty of the materials employed in building and decorating it, and the strength of the masonry, claim the admiration of all beholders who must confess it is a dwelling spacious and grand enough to have lodged the ancient masters of the Roman world. It is a pity that its enormous bulk drowns the minuter members of its architecture, and gives too much the idea of a regular monastery, where the wealthy chief of some religious order presides over long dormitories of segregated monks; by the gigantic range, and the number of windows, too great a sameness is produced, the few breaks in the front become imperceptible, and the lines too long and uniform (..) upon a nearer approach, the parts and proportions are better distinguished, and the objection ceases. (..) A road is to be opened through the plain to Naples, in a direct line from the front of the palace, for the future torment of impatient travellers.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
One of the courtyards and a detail of its decoration which is similar to that at Convento di S. Agostino in Rome
The palace is a high, regular block of about 600 by 500 feet, with four large courtyards formed by a cross of wings. The Louvre, the Escurial, Inigo Jones's plans for Whitehall Palace come to mind; we are obviously in this tradition. None of these great residences, however, was designed with the same compelling logic and the same love for the absolute geometrical pattern, characteristics which have a long Italian ancestry and reveal, at the same time, Vanvitelli's rationalism and classicism. Wittkower
The "Telescope" and the view towards the gardens
The style of the palace was internationally in vogue during the second half of the eighteenth century. But in one important respect Caserta is different from all similar buildings. Vanvitelli had been reared in the scenographic tradition of the Italian Late Baroque, and it was at Caserta that scenographic principles were carried farther than anywhere else. From the vestibule vistas open in several directions: courtyards appear on the diagonal axes, and looking straight ahead, the visitor's eye is captivated by the vista through the immensely long, monumental passage which cuts right through the entire width of the structure and extends at the far end along the main avenue into the depth of the garden. Wittkower
(left) Detail of the lower vestibule; (right) copy of the Farnese Hercules in the niche opposite the Great Staircase
It was during the reign of Charles that the first systematic excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii were carried out. Some of the works of art which were found there were utilised for the decoration of the palace of Caserta and of that at Portici. In 1787 the Farnese collection of ancient statues in Rome was moved to Naples for the same purpose. The inscription Gloria, virtutem post fortia facta coronat indicates that the pedestal was meant to support a statue of Hercules being crowned by Glory which presumably would have had a more appropriate size (or the statue of Alessandro Farnese).
Grand staircase (1); the two lions resemble those which decorated Villa Medici in Rome at that time; the fresco of the ceiling by Girolamo Starace portrays the Seat of Apollo
From the octagonal vestibule in the centre, Italy's largest ceremonial staircase ascends at right angles. Its rather austere decoration may be fashioned after Versailles, but the staircase hall as such and the staircase with its central flight leading to a broad landing from where two flights turn along the walls and end under a screen of three arches - all this has a North Italian pedigree. Wittkower
Grand staircase (2)
If you wish to see specimens of all the marbles of this country
collected in a short space, visit this palace. The stairs are formed of
single blocks of the marble of Trapani, in Sicily, called Lumachella,
and at each landing are lions exquisitely sculptured, with numerous
statues of allegorical figures. The sides are of the finest marbles,
among which you see the choicest breccias of Dragoni, and the
marbles of Vitulano.
Craufurd Tait Ramage - Nooks and By-Ways in Italy (1868) based on a journey made in 1828.
Grand staircase (3)
Although many decorative features of the interior are specifically Roman and even Borrominesque, (..) the scenographic way of planning and seeing ties Vanvitelli firmly to the Late Baroque, and it is under this light that his classicism takes on its particular flavour. Wittkower
The staircase leads into a vaulted octagonal vestibule corresponding to that on the lower level, and from
there doors open into the state rooms and - opposite the staircase - into the chapel. (..) From the return flights of the staircase the beholder looks through the screen of
arches into stage-like scenery beyond, viewing a Piranesi (it opens in another window) or Bibiena phantasmagoria in
solid stone. Wittkower
There are twenty-four Ionic pillars adorning the centre of vestibule made of the red breccia of Mons Garganus in Apulia. Ramage
Hall of the Throne
King Charles never used this hall the decoration of which was completed in 1845. In 1759 he became King of Spain at the death of the last of his stepbrothers. He could not retain Naples and Sicily because of the opposition of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa who agreed to forfeit her rights on these kingdoms provided that they were ruled by an independent monarch. Charles abdicated in favour of his third son Ferdinand, a boy of eight who was promised to a daughter of the Empress; the marriage with Maria Carolina, Archduchess of Austria, took place in 1768.
Elisabeth Farnese was shortly Regent of Spain for his son. She must have been very proud of herself. Charles was the King of Spain, Philip, another of her sons, was Duke of Parma and her grandson Ferdinand was King of Naples and Sicily. The Bourbons of France lost their throne in 1830, those of Parma in 1859, those of Naples (or of the Two Sicilies) in 1860, but the Bourbons of Spain have managed to retain it.
The chapel is incrustated with panels of yellow marble,
but the paintings, by Conca, are unworthy of the place they occupy; a Presentation by Mengs, is a picture of
much greater merit. Swinburne
Swinburne visited the chapel, which has the size of a large church, before its formal inauguration in 1784.
On August 27, 1943 Allied bombings hit the chapel and the paintings by Conca and Mengs were destroyed together with the ceiling and most of the columns. The only remaining painting, now on the main altar, is an Immaculate Conception by Giuseppe Bonito.
View of the theatre from the stage (from an unofficial Reggia di Caserta website)
The theatre is a master-piece of art; antique columns
of alabaster support the roof, and divide the house into
forty-two boxes richly decorated; every part of the design
tends to the formation of one magnificent scene, and to
let off both actors and spectators to the best advantage. Swinburne
The theatre was inaugurated in the 1769 Carnival season.
Structure of the apartments on the south side with an impressive suite of rooms aligned with each other
Caserta, Wednesday, March 14, 1787.
The new palace, somewhat huge and Escurial-like, of
a quadrangular plan, with many courts, is royal enough. (..)
It appears to me, however, particularly gloomy; and no one of us could bring himself to
think the vast and empty rooms comfortable. The King probably is of the same opinion, for he has caused a house to be
built on the mountains, which, smaller and more proportioned
to man's littleness, is intended for a hunting-box and country-seat.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - Italian Journey - translation by Charles Nisbet
(left) Hall of Mars; (right) Hall of Astraea, goddess of Innocence and Justice
If in Rome one can readily set oneself to study, here one
can do nothing but live. You forget yourself and the
world; and to me it is a strange feeling to go about with
people who think of nothing but enjoying themselves. Sir
William Hamilton, who still resides here as ambassador from
England, has at length, after his long love of art, and long
study, discovered the most perfect of admirers of nature and
art in a beautiful young woman. She lives with him: an
English woman of about twenty years old. She is very
handsome, and of a beautiful figure. (..) He thinks he can discern
in her a resemblance to all the most famous antiques, all the
beautiful profiles on the Sicilian coins - aye, of the Apollo Belvedere (it opens in another window) itself. Goethe
Lady Hamilton became a close friend of Queen Maria Carolina. The decoration of these halls clearly shows the move from Late Baroque to Neoclassicism.
One of the halls of the Library
King Ferdinand was not particularly keen on books and literature and the construction of a large library was a decision of his wife. Queen Carolina personally took care of the education of her children.
Naples, Feb. 28, 1787. To-day we visited Philip Hackert, the famous landscape-painter, who enjoys the special confidence and peculiar favour of the king and the queen. (..) Caserta, March 15, 1787. I am here on a visit to Hackert. (..) The special confidence with which the queen honours him is evinced not merely by the fact that he gives lessons in practice to the princesses, but still more so by his being frequently summoned on an evening to talk with and instruct them on art and kindred subjects. Goethe
Fresco portraying the wedding of Alexander the Great with Roxana by Mariano Rossi, who had previously worked at the decoration of the Casino di Villa Borghese in Rome; you may wish to see the same subject painted by Il Sodoma at La Farnesina
The subject depicted on this ceiling was most likely meant to be a tribute to the royal couple. Maria Carolina bore eighteen children to Ferdinand, but the marriage was not a happy one.
The Queen resides in the Royal Palace (of Palermo); the King remains at the Favorita (a countryside residence) with his mistress; and it is only on what they call name days that is the birthday of some of the Royal Family, that a regular drawing-room or levee is held.
Sir George Cockburn - A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar: up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta in 1810/11. In 1810 the writer was appointed to the staff of the English army at Messina when Sicily was at risk of being invaded by the French. Britain protected the island and King Ferdinand and his wife who in 1806 fled Naples for Palermo.
Joachim Murat's Cabinet Meeting Room
In 1798-1799 the French occupied Naples for a few months, but in 1806 after their victory at Austerlitz they managed to impose their permanent rule on the Kingdom of Naples. Initially it was assigned to Joseph, one of Napoleon's brothers and in 1808 to Joachim Murat, a Marshal of France and the Emperor's brother-in-law. Murat endeavoured to improve the economic and social conditions of the kingdom and gained some popularity. He had however to take part in the Campaign of Russia and in the Battle of Leipzig which forced Napoleon to abdicate. Murat made an attempt to save his throne by reaching an agreement with the Austrians. After Napoleon returned to France in March 1815 he switched side again, but was defeated near Tolentino and King Ferdinand was back in Naples in June.
On returning to Caserta travellers usually visit the Palace. (..) Particularly magnificent are the Great Staircase, the Vestibule to the Chapel and the Chapel, but the Royal Apartments in this Palace though vast and beautifully proportioned are so ill furnished as to be little worth attention.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1839 Edition - based on travels made in 1824-1828
The great palace of Caserta will claim attention from the architect, being almost the only modern building of importance in Southern Italy, though, while the Bourbon sovereigns took little trouble for the advancement of their kingdom, their care for their own comfort is evinced by the number of palaces built by them. No kingdom of the size had so many royal residences. Besides the palaces in Sicily, La Reggia in the capital, Capodimonte and Portici in its immediate suburbs, and the glorious Caserta, the sovereigns had villas at Castellamare, at Carditello, and at Persano near Paestum, with the castles of Procida and Ischia for sea-bathing. (..) The apartments have the usual mixture of splendour and gloom, which is the characteristic of great palaces, but here the gloom predominates, and the sovereigns seem to have thought so, for they have scarcely ever inhabited Caserta.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Cities of Southern Italy and Sicily - 1891
Most of the furniture which currently is on display in the apartments at Caserta comes from other royal residences.
Queen's Apartments: (left) porcelain vase from Meissen; (right) singing bird clock. The image used as background for this page shows a detail of a fresco in these apartments
King Charles married Maria Amalia, daughter of Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony. Her grandfather had promoted studies into the production of porcelain which eventually led to the establishment of a factory at Meissen in 1710. In 1743 Charles and Maria Amalia decided the construction of a porcelain factory at Capodimonte, a hill near Naples where they had another royal palace, in direct emulation of that at Meissen. The clock is a gift to Queen Maria Carolina by her ill-fated sister Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.
Hall of the Throne: 1845 decoration
During the XIXth century the Bourbon kings lost interest in Caserta; the ceiling shows the initials of Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies and Maria Theresa, his second wife and a granddaughter of Austrian Emperor Leopold II. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was a political satellite of the Austrian Empire and this alliance was strengthened by marriage bonds.
Chapel of Pope Pius IX
Pope Pius IX was forced to leave Rome in November 1848. He chose to stay at Gaeta, rather than accepting the offer to move to Naples. He did so only in September 1849 after the French had put an end to Garibaldi's Defence of Rome. He stayed in the Royal Palace of Portici near Naples until April 1850, but he spent also a period at Caserta. After the declaration of the Kingdom of Italy in March 1861, the palace became one of the residences of the Kings of Italy. It was rarely used especially after the annexation of Rome in 1870 and the consequent acquisition of Palazzo del Quirinale.
One of the many paintings showing Mount Vesuvius
It was typical of noble palaces to be decorated with views of the fiefdoms owned by the landlords as at Palazzo Altieri at Oriolo; given its beautiful and terrific aspect Mount Vesuvius was depicted in many paintings. The furniture of the apartments was greatly damaged during WWI when the palace was used for military purposes (in 1921 it was ceded to the State by the King of Italy) and during WWII when it housed the Allied headquarters in Italy. In 1948 the non-monumental parts of the building were assigned to the Italian Army, but there is a program to reserve the entire Royal Palace for cultural and educational functions by December 2020. In 1997 UNESCO included the palace and its gardens in their World Heritage List.