Big is a little word that can’t quite fit all of this palace in. Size is everywhere but still the giant proved hard to find by car.
We knew we’d reached Caserta but even though we were within metres of the palace we couldn’t see it. The area was a strange, any-man’s-land of straight roads and plain buildings.
After several laps around a large roundabout we did find the underground parking, whose stairs popped us up close to the front of the palace where an unbuilt road was supposed to have stretched from the entrance all the way to Naples.
The outside was big but the inside felt massive.
The man who designed the palace was local architect Luigi Vanvitelli. He was commissioned by Carlo di Borbone, King of Naples, who wanted his kingdom to have a building as powerful as the one his grandfather, Louis XIV – the Sun King – had left to France.
The young King’s wish was for a Versailles of his own built in countryside that would allow him to do what he loved to do … hunt. Caserta – safe from the sea, Vesuvius and any unrest in Naples – was perfect.
Once the King had the land all he had to do was build a reggia (palace) big enough for business and stylish enough for pleasure. To fit everyone in it also had to be enormous – 1,200 rooms seemed about right.
Luigi Vanvitelli set to work. His designs were accepted and the foundation stone for the palace was laid in 1752, the day the King turned 36.
Work progressed rapidly until the first complication in 1759 – the death of the King’s half-brother, Ferdinand VI, King of Spain. Carlo di Borbone, by then the first in line to the Spanish throne, had little choice but to abdicate his position in Naples and return to Spain.
He left his eight-year old son, Ferdinand, to replace him as King of Naples, on the understanding that the Marquis Bernardo Tanucci would be in charge until King Ferdinando IV di Borbone was old enough to rule in his own right.
Work at the palace went on despite the change in kings but at a much slower pace. Luigi Vanvitelli continued to supervise construction but now had less money and fewer workmen to get the job done. He stayed on site and devoted two decades of his life to the palace but never saw it completed. He died in 1773 when the long-distance cascade of fountains he had planned were still without their water.
The project then passed to his son, Carlo Vanvitelli, and seven years later work on the massive build, virtually complete, came to an end. The palace and grounds were not quite as originally planned but they were still vast and by then their fountains were flowing.
The date was 1780 – it left the Bourbons with less than twenty years to make themselves at home. By the end of the century the French Revolution had reached Naples and King Ferdinand and his family had their first taste of exile.
There followed a bumpy sixty years towards the end of monarchy in Naples and the Two Sicilies.
Now, almost two centuries later with Italy a republic, the palace still stands. The lions, the columns, the statues, the great vast ceilings are all there, but there’s an emptiness, a weariness, like a balloon seen from the inside.
There are some furnishings, dwarfed by the big rooms, but the kings and their courts have all gone. It’s quiet and cold-floored, with the only echoes those of the tourists.
We were part of those echoes on our visit – amazed by the ceilings; chilled by the furnishings; and over-blinged by the golden gleam of the grand state rooms.
It was impressive but almost too big to imagine full of life and lives.
Worth a visit? I would say it definitely merits a wander and a wonder, but set aside plenty of time. Bourbon palaces take time and this is a very big Bourbon palace.
As well as the palace, there are three kilometres of gardens and water features to explore, along with a silk museum, and the history of the silk factory’s town, which once had free houses and free schools for the workers.
A final note: the day we visited there was, bizarrely, a fighter jet pointing its nose into the palace – perhaps it was the Italian Air Force marking their territory (see the link below).
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2016
Here is a link which gives a taste of life in the palace: