Built by the Bourbon kings of Naples during the 18th century, the Royal Palace of Caserta was the largest palace in Europe and a perfect example of Baroque art style.
The construction of the palace was begun in 1752 for Charles VII of Naples, who worked closely with his architect Luigi Vanvitelli.
When Charles saw Vanvitelli’s grandly-scaled model for Caserta it filled him with emotion “fit to tear his heart from his breast”.
In the end, he never slept a night at the Reggia, as he abdicated in 1759 to become King of Spain, and the project was carried to only partial completion for his third son and successor, Ferdinand IV of Naples.
The political and social model for Vanvitelli’s palace was Versailles, which, though it is strikingly different in its variety and disposition, solves similar problems of assembling and providing for king, court, and government in a massive building with the social structure of a small city, confronting a baroque view of a highly subordinated nature, la nature forcée.
Vanvitelli died in 1773: the construction was continued by his son Carlo and then by other architects; but the elder Vanvitelli’s original project, which included a vast pair of frontal wings similar to Bernini’s wings at St. Peter’s, was never finished.
The palace has some 1,200 rooms, including two dozen state apartments, a large library, and a theater modeled after the Teatro San Carlo of Naples.
Main façade of the palace.
The Honour Grand Staircase.
The throne room.
The Diana and Actaeon Fountain at the feet of the Grand Cascade.
The population of Caserta Vecchia was moved 10 kilometers to provide a workforce closer to the palace.
From 1923 to 1943 and during World War II the palace was the location of the Accademia Aeronautica, the Italian Air Force Academy.
From 1943, during the allied invasion the royal palace served as the seat of the Supreme Allied Commander; Sir Maitland Wilson, and later Sir Harold Alexander. In April 1945 the palace was the site of the signing of terms of the unconditional German surrender of forces in Italy. The agreement covered between 600,000 and 900,000 soldiers along the Italian Front including troops in sections of Austria. The first Allied war crimes trial took place in the palace in 1945; German general Anton Dostler was sentenced to death and executed nearby, in Aversa.
The palace has a rectangular plan, measuring 247 x 184 m. The four sides are connected by two orthogonal arms, forming four inner courts, each measuring more than 3,800 m2 (40,903 sq ft). Of all the royal palaces in the world, Caserta is by far the largest in terms of volume, with more than 2 million m³ (70 million cu ft).
Of all the royal residences inspired by the Palace of Versailles, the Reggia of Caserta is the one that bears the greatest resemblance to the original model: the unbroken balustraded skyline, the slight break provided by pavilions within the long, somewhat monotonous facade.
The garden, a typical example of the baroque extension of formal vistas, stretches for 120 ha, partly on hilly terrain. It is also inspired by the park of Versailles.
The park starts from the back façade of the palace, flanking a long alley with artificial fountains and cascades.
There is a botanical garden, called “The English Garden,” in the upper part designed in the 1780s by Carlo Vanvitelli and the German-born botanist, nurseryman, plantsman-designer John Graefer, trained in London and recommended to Sir William Hamilton by Sir Joseph Banks. It is an early Continental example of an “English garden” in the svelte naturalistic taste of Capability Brown.
The fountains and cascades, each filling a vasca (“basin”), with architecture and hydraulics by Luigi Vanvitelli at intervals along a wide straight canal that runs to the horizon, rivaled those at Peterhof outside St. Petersburg. These include:
The Fountain of Diana and Actaeon (sculptures by Paolo Persico, Brunelli, Pietro Solari);
The Fountain of Venus and Adonis (1770–80);
The Fountain of the Dolphins (1773–80);
The Fountain of Aeolus;
The Fountain of Ceres.
In 1997 it served as a filming location for Star Wars when it was used as the setting for Queen Amidala’s Royal Palace on Naboo in the 1999 film Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It featured again in the 2002 film Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones as Queen Jamilla’s palace.