My research in Italy in 2004 focused on thirteenth and fourteenth century history. As our visit came to an end, we didn’t want to return our rental car in a city, with all the crazy traffic, so we chose–and I can’t recall why–to drop it off at Caserta, north of Naples, and take the train back to Rome from there. I knew nothing about Caserta, because its major claim to fame developed about 450 years after the history I was most interested in.
Across the street from the train station, a few hundred yards away, we could see a massive building, certainly palatial, and we looked with some curiosity but no spare time, wondering what it might be. Our view was not the one you see above, but from the other side of the building, with no hint of the wonderful canal and park.
Now I know. The Reggia di Caserta, the royal palace built by the Bourbon kings of Naples in the 18th century. In fact, the largest palace contructed during that century, and among the largest buildings built in that period, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With 1200 rooms, it is the largest royal palace in the world.
It is on my itinerary for Italy next year!
The palace was conceived and construction begun by King Charles VII of Naples, but he inherited the throne of Spain in 1759, and ceded Naples to his son Ferdinand who was only eight years old. After a period of rule in Naples through regents until he reached his majority, Ferdinand occasionally lived at Caserta from its completion in 1780 until his death in 1825. This included the turbulent Napoleonic period during which Ferdinand was deposed and restored three times. The Bourbons continued to rule until 1861, when Italian unification dissolved the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Fast forward to World War II, when the palace again served a prominent purpose as the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander. In April of 1945, the German surrender in Italy was signed at Caserta.
In more recent years, the palace has been used as a movie filming site for a couple of Star Wars movies, and for scenes from Angels and Demons. In Mission Impossible III, the square where the Lamborghini is blown up is one of the inner squares of the palace.
Visitors today note that the palace is completely unfurnished, and a bit run down, but it is still a popular tourist stop. The grounds are as much an attraction as the palace itself, with a three mile long “Royal Park” considered by many to be superior to the park at Versailles.
Here’s a video peek at some of the Baroque wonders of the palace and park: