18th-Century Royal Palace at Caserta with the Park, the Aqueduct of Vanvitelli, and the San Leucio Complex
18th-Century Royal Palace At Caserta With The Park, The Aqueduct Of Vanvitelli, And The San Leucio Complex
Cultural Italy Europe And North America Provinces Of Caserta And Benevento, Campania

The monumental complex at Caserta, while cast in the same mould as other 18th-century royal establishments, is exceptional for the broad sweep of its design, incorporating an imposing palace and park, and also much of the surrounding natural landscape and an ambitious new town laid out according to urban planning precepts of its time. The industrial complex of the Belvedere, designed to produce silk, is also of outstanding interest because of the idealistic principles underlying its original conception and management.

In 1734 Charles III, son of Philip V, became King of Naples, a self-governing kingdom that was no longer part of the Spanish realm. He decided in 1750 to build a new royal palace, to rival the Palace of Versailles. It was designed to be the centre of a new town that would compete with leading European cities. He employed architect Luigi Vanvitelli, then engaged in the restoration o St Peter's in Rome. The Bosco di San Silvestro, on the two hills of Montemaiuolo and Montebriano, was covered with vineyards and orchards when in 1773 Ferdinand IV decided to enclose it and create a hunting park.

The hill of San Leucio takes its name from the Lombard church at its top. A hunting lodge, the Belvedere, had been built at its foot in the 16th century by the Princes of Caserta. The fief had been purchased by Charles Ill, and in 1773 Ferdinand IV initiated work on the Old Hunting Lodge, to be abandoned after the death of his son. In 1778 the king decided to begin the production of silk. His architect, Collecini, converted the building for this purpose, as the centre of a large industrial complex, including a school, accommodation for teachers, silkworm rooms, and facilities for spinning and dyeing the silk. He issued a series of laws in 1789 to regulate the San Leucio Royal Colony: this laid down piecework rates of pay, abolished dowries, and prescribed similar clothing for all the workers, in a form of proto-socialism. During the next decade plans were made for enlargement of the village, and Collecini produced designs for a town, to be known as 'Ferdinandopolis', but this dream was not realized because of the French occupation.

The fishponds in the gardens of the Royal Palace, the Royal Silk Factory and the planned new town all required large amounts of water, and so the Carolino Aqueduct was built (completed in 1769) to bring water from the Fizo spring over a distance of 38 km to the top of Montebriano. In 1744 Charles III acquired the rich Carditello estate. The hunting lodge there was built in 1784, as part of a complex of rural houses and roads radiating fanwise from the main building. This had the royal apartments in the centre and rooms for agricultural and stock-rearing activities on either side.

The Royal Palace is rectangular in plan, with four large interior courtyards intersecting at right angles. It covers 45,000 m2 and its five storeys rise to a height of 36 m. An indication of its scale can be judged from the fact that there are 143 windows on the main facade and the building contains 1,200 rooms and 34 staircases. The building is constructed in brick, the two lower storeys being faced with travertine ashlars. The whole structure is crowned by a central cupola. In front of the main facade is the elliptical parade ground. Inside, there are three octagonal vestibules, aligned on the main axis of the building and acting as fulcrums for the entire complex. The monumental main staircase gives access to the royal apartments, which are decorated and furnished in 18th-century style. The chapel, inspired by that at Versailles, opens out of the lower vestibule. Another noteworthy feature is the Royal Theatre, a superb example of 18th-century design.

The park, which lies behind the palace, was planned by Luigi Vanvitelli but completed by his son Carlo. The main axis is punctuated by a series of Baroque fountains and stretches of water. This magnificent perspective terminates in the Great Fountain, where water cascades down from a height of 150 m into an ornate basin that depicts Diana bathing, observed by the unfortunate Actaeon.