Not far from Naples, in the small town of Caserta, lies a magnificent palazzo that resembles the famous Versailles in France. The Royal Palace of Caserta (Reggia di Caserta in Italian) was the largest European palace built during the 18th century and home to Bourbon kings, who once ruled here. A few centuries later, it’s just as awe-inspiring as it was back then.
Surrounded by spectacular gardens with pools, fountains, statues and flower beds, Caserta is a stunning example of Italian Baroque created by one of Italy’s greatest architects, Luigi Vanvitelli. So if you want to step into the world of the rulers of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, plan a day trip from Naples and head to Caserta.
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The history of Caserta Palace
The Spanish Bourbons ruled over this part of Italy during the 18th century. When Charles III inherited the throne, he decided to show off the Bourbon’s power by building an architectural marvel that would rival the grandeur of Versailles. To realize his dream, he enlisted the expertise of the renowned Italian architect Luigi Vanvitelli. The task was to design the Royal Palace of Caserta, which was to become the crown jewel of the Bourbon dynasty’s legacy.
By then, Luigi Vanvitelli had already made a name for himself. He worked on building the Trevi Fountain and stabilizing the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome when it started to crack. He also designed a number of other palazzos, bridges and churches in Italy. His appointment to lead this project was a logical choice, and this became his largest and longest project. The construction of the palace started in 1752 on Charles’ 36th birthday. It was smooth sailing until 1759, when Charles abdicated his throne to become the King of Spain. The project slowed down and was not fully completed when Vanvitelli died in 1773. His son Carlo and numerous other architects saw its completion in 1780.
With over 1,200 rooms, including official government offices, barracks, a university, a national theatre and a library, Caserta is the largest royal residence in the world, covering an area of 247 acres. The palace is a testament to the architectural brilliance of Vanvitelli, who created a magnificent masterpiece that seamlessly integrated with the surrounding natural landscape. In recognition of its exceptional value as a historical and cultural site, the palace was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The palace might not look as impressive on the outside, but once you get inside, you come face to face with unparalleled architectural wonder.
You will find the Royal Palace of Caserta about 32 km (20 miles) north of Naples in a charming town of the same name. From the outside, this might look like another fancy building from another time. Don’t let the seemingly plain grass field in front fool you.
Architectural style of the Royal Palace of Caserta
The Royal Palace of Caserta is an outstanding example of Italian Baroque architecture that will impress you even if you’re not an architecture enthusiast. Designed to impress, the palace spans 500,000 square feet (47,000 m2) over five floors and incorporates four internal courtyards into its design. The palace boasts an impressive 1,200 rooms, 1,742 windows, 1,026 fireplaces and 34 staircases. Yes, you read that right – 34 staircases.
Inside, you can view the Palatine Chapel, historical apartments, court theatre and the Picture Gallery. To me, the most impressive is the Grand Staircase which splits into two parallel staircases at the landing. Decorated in marble with elegant arches, statues and marble lions, the staircase is a masterpiece of architecture and scenography. It also became an inspiration for future staircase design.
The private apartments of the palace house an impressive collection of furniture, art and décor in the neo-classical style. Throughout the palace, visitors can admire spectacular ceilings, marble floors and opulent chandeliers. Like many similar places, the palace features paintings by renowned artists, elaborate frescos and silk wallpaper made in a nearby silk factory. If you like gold, you’ll feel right at home here, as everything is covered in gold leaf.
In addition to the private apartments, you have to see the Palatine Library. Commissioned by Queen Maria Carolina of Habsburg-Lorraine at the end of the 18th century, the library consists of five rooms, two antechambers and three additional rooms that house an extensive book collection of over 14,000 volumes. Queen Maria Carolina was the wife of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, who inherited the Royal Palace of Caserta from his father, King Charles. While we couldn’t see all those rooms, we got a taste of the library in the reading rooms that are open to the public. Here you’ll find some of the volumes and a couple of globes, a brass telescope and two barometers.
Caserta Palace gardens
Behind the spectacular Royal Palace of Caserta, you’ll find equally magnificent gardens. There is an Italian-style garden with an artificial lake, grottos and a building that resembles a small castle. Then there is the English-style garden with rare botanical species of plants, creeks and sculptures.
When you leave the palace, you’ll face a path before you that stretches for over 3 km (2 miles). As the park grounds cover over 121 hectares (300 acres), that is a lot of space to cover. You can wander down the path and admire the fountains and water features. You can also rent a bike if you don’t want to walk. I would recommend taking the shuttle from the palace to the end of the gardens and then walking back. That way, you can fully take in the space and the design.
Along the long path are five fountains and cascades that surround the canal. Each fountain fills out a basin, some of which have fish in them. The five fountains include 1) the Fountain of Diana and Actaeon, 2) the Fountain of Venus and Adonis, 3) the Fountain of the Dolphins, 4) the Fountain of Aeolus, and 5) the Fountain of Ceres. All are adorned with sculptures and are definitely worth admiring.
When you’re visiting the Royal Palace of Caserta, make sure to stop by the Aqueduct of Vanvitelli, also called Caroline Aqueduct (Acquedotto Carolino in Italian). It’s about a 20-minute drive from the palace. Vanvitelli designed the aqueduct to bring water to Caserta and the palazzo’s gardens along a 38 km (over 23 miles) long route. The construction took about nine years (1753-1762). The design was modelled on the ancient Roman aqueduct system and if you didn’t know any different, you can mistake it for Roman architecture. It’s made up of three rows of arches measuring 55.8 meters (183 ft) high at its highest point.
Another great spot to check out is the Monumental Complex Belvedere San Leucio, about a 10-minute drive from the palace. When King Charles envisioned Caserta as the new centre of his kingdom, he also planned to conduct a social experiment centred around silk making. The former hunting lodge was turned into a silk mill, with workers living in the complex surrounding it. Workers were guaranteed homes, access to schools, medical care and all services. It was operating on the concept of the value of work and equality, an idea unheard of in Europe.
Read more about The Utopian Colony of San Leucio.
After Charles abdicated in favour of the Spanish crown in 1759, he left the project to his son, King Ferdinand IV. As Ferdinando was a minor at the time, the project took some time to develop. The Royal Colony of San Leucio finally came to fruition in 1776. The project didn’t last long due to the political climate in Europe. Today you can visit the silk factory museum and check out the machines preserved almost intact.
Royal Palace of Caserta in cultural context
Over the years, the Royal Palace of Caserta has served as a filming location for famous Hollywood movies. From Mission Impossible III and Angels and Demons to Star Wars Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.
While it was initially built for Spain’s Bourbon kings, the palace became home to numerous royal families. During the war, it suffered damage from bombings and occupation by the US troops. In 1945, the German troops surrendered to the Allies in Italy by signing the Surrender of Caserta. The document was signed at the Royal Palace of Caserta in April and became formalized in May, signifying the end of WWII.
How to get here + practical info
The Royal Palace of Caserta is open every day except Tuesdays, December 25 and January 1. The Royal Apartments open at 9:30 a.m., with the last admission at 7 p.m. The park and the gardens opening hours change seasonally.
- Royal Apartments, Royal Park and English Garden Ticket – € 14.00
- Only Royal Apartments (available for purchase when the park is closed) – € 10.00
- Only Royal Apartments (available for purchase after 5 p.m.) – € 3.00
- Parcoday (available for sale at the Corso Giannone ticket office – access to the Royal Park and the English Garden) – € 9.00
Final thoughts on the Royal Palace of Caserta
If you are in Italy’s Campania region, I highly recommend a trip to the Royal Palace of Caserta. It’s a stunning building with even more breathtaking décor that will blow your socks off. The staircase alone is worthy of admiration. The garden is also a beautiful feature that only adds to the place’s charm. I think Charles would have approved.
You can easily drive to Caserta in about 30 minutes, depending on the traffic. It’s a perfect day trip, or if you want to make it longer, a great weekend adventure. The town of Caserta is a cute town with many bars and restaurants. If you have time to stay overnight, it’s worth exploring. Also, don’t forget to check out the aqueduct and the town of San Leucio to get a complete picture of what Charles’ vision involved. While he didn’t get to enjoy it, you certainly can.
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