This article originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2018.
You can be forgiven if you have never heard of Caserta — or if you feel like you have, but aren’t quite sure why. Its Campanian cousins — Pompeii, Sorrento, Amalfi — have long overshadowed this small city 20 miles north of Naples. While Italian tourists provide a steady stream of visitors, foreigners have yet to take full notice of this historic gem.
Caserta’s relative fame comes from a palace known as “the Versailles of Italy” — the 1200-room Reggia di Caserta. And the nickname isn’t an exaggeration. Some who have visited both world-famous palaces argue that the Royal Palace of Caserta’s opulent décor and expansive gardens surpass those of the extravagant French palace.
Indeed, Versailles was what the Bourbon Charles IV of Naples had in mind when he bought the village of Caserta from the noble Caetani family of Sermonta. He said he wanted to build a palace rivaling that of his grandfather’s — who happened to be Louis XIV, the creator of Versailles. Charles chose Caserta for its fertile soil, fresh air and a location decidedly away from the sea. Naples proved too vulnerable a capital as the English navy had bombed the city in 1743.
Charles IV worked closely with architect Luigi Vanvitelli to create a design for the palace and construction began on the king’s 36th birthday, January 20, 1752. Up to 2681 people worked on the building simultaneously. Five stories tall, the palace contains 243 windows, 43 staircases and four giant courtyards. No wonder it wasn’t considered even somewhat complete until 1774, during the reign of Ferdinand IV, the son of Charles IV. Vanvitelli died in 1773, but his son Carlo took over the supervision of construction. It wasn’t until 1847 that the palace’s throne room was finished.
Allot plenty of time to visit the royal apartments, because they are worth viewing in detail. Tours start at the state staircase where the stairways are so immense, that apparently (cringe) American troops drove jeeps up and down them during World War II. The Reggia di Caserta served as a rest area, headquarters for the American 5th Army and 15th Army and the center for Allied Command at various times during the war. In fact, on April 29, 1945, German forces in Italy surrendered to the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean in a 17-minute ceremony at the palace.
Across from the top of the stairs is the palatine chapel, which the king wanted to resemble the chapel at Versailles. Unfortunately, this gilded place of worship is often closed. If you get in, look for the masterpiece, The Immaculate Conception by Giuseppe Bonito, hanging over the altar. Several other paintings by Bonito, Conca and Mengs, were destroyed when the palace was bombed on September 23, 1943. Damage to several of the chapel’s columns has remained unfixed as a reminder of the war.
The royal apartments feature the finest paintings, frescoes, woodwork, tapestries, fabrics and furniture imaginable. Five antechambers lead to the golden throne room, the largest room in the palace, which remained undecorated for its first five decades, during the time the Kingdom of Naples passed from the Bourbons to the French and back to the Bourbons. (Joachim Murat of the Bonapartes ruled from 1808 to 1815.) Murat is conveniently left out of the room’s frieze containing medallions of the kings of Naples.
The private apartments of the kingdom’s rulers provide unique views of court life, with far too many attributes than can be described here. For example, Francis II’s bedroom contains the first known example of a roll-top desk. Alexander’s rooms are decorated with colorful allegories of the Four Seasons by Antonio de Dominici and Fedele Fischetti. The library, containing 10,000 volumes, also houses a conical turning bookshelf, designed so that Queen Maria Carolina could read several books without getting out of her seat.
Back to the ground floor, the palace theater, a smaller replica of Teatro San Carlo in Naples, is the only part of the palace completed entirely under the direction of Luigi Vanvitelli. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium was inaugurated in 1769 by Ferdinand IV and has been painstakingly restored to its original form.
On a sunny day especially, the beauty of the palace’s exterior may rival that of its interior. The 300 lush acres of parkland (designed by Martin Blancour) feature waterworks and fountains among various gardens. The highlight of Caserta’s park is the great cascade, a waterfall 225 feet high flowing towards the palace from the opposite end of the park.
If your stay permits, visit Belvedere San Leucio, a former hunting lodge turned social experiment, founded by Ferdinand IV in 1789. Ferdinand hired Vanvitelli student Francesco Collecini to widen San Leucio and to turn it predominantly into a royal silk mill (although maintaining a royal apartment, complete with an indoor swimming pool) and establish an industry for the locals.
By 1823, the neo-classic structure contained silk mills, a cocoon warehouse, housing for the mill manager and parish priest, spinning rooms and a school. Workers were housed across the street. Ferdinand established rules for how his subjects should live and work together. San Leucio became famous around the world as one of the first attempts at Enlightenment-inspired rural socialism. Even today, local workshops continue to produce some of the world’s finest silk, which has been used to decorate the White House and Buckingham Palace.
From the terrace of San Leucio, visitors can look out over to the city of Caserta and see the royal palace. These two buildings have so many stories to tell. History lovers won’t be disappointed.
Worth a Stop
Enoteca La Botte
Via Nazionale Appia, 168/180
(39) 0823 468130
With 2,000 labels representing wines from Campania to California, this specialty wine and food shop located within walking distance of the palace, is considered one of southern Italy’s best.The Ricciardi family can lead you in tasting local products, such as Fiano di Avellino wine, fresh mozzarella di buffala and one of the region’s more recent delicacies, buffalo meat.
Caserta’s train station is a stone’s throw from the palace, making a visit an attractive day trip from Naples.The journey takes about 30 minutes. Caserta is also a stop on the Rome to Naples intercity train line (about a 2-hour ride). For more information, visit www.trenitalia.com.
Where to Stay
Jolly Hotel Caserta
Viale Vittorio Veneto, 9
(39) 0823 325222
Many of the rooms in this 4-star property have views over the palace and park.
Rates: Starting at 149 euros per room, per night.