If you watched “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”, you would have seen the grand and elegant palace of Queen Amidala’s palace on the planet Naboo. Well, the palace is certainly not out of this world, for it is actually the Royal Palace of Caserta, located 21 miles northeast of Naples.
A Palace extroadinary
Construction commenced on the palace in 1752, and it was only completed a century later. The palace was built by Charles III, King of the Two Sicilies, in emulation of his royal cousins’ renowned Palace of Versailles. Caserta was chosen because of its inland location, as the old palace in Naples was vulnerable to attacks from the sea and was exposed to the volcanic explosions of Vesuvius. In any case, the 1,200 room complex eventually became the administrative centre for the Kingdom.
The palace is a rectangular block, enclosing a cross shaped structure which divides the space enclosed by the outer structure into four courtyards. From the main entrance, one can walk directly to the Stairway of Honour, which was featured prominently in the Star Wars movie. The 116 steps of the staircase were carved out of a single, large block of marble. The main first flight is flanked at a landing by two lions representing the powers of Reason and Force. It continues on in two parallel flights under graceful vaults leading to three arches.
The palace features a Grand Theatre with a backdrop which can be opened to reveal the outside, to provide a natural backdrop for stage performances. Modeled upon the great San Carlo Theatre in Naples, this theater was completed in 1768 and the first performance was held on the occasion of the Carnival in 1769. The theatre is located on the ground floor, in the middle of the west side. The private boxes and walls are decorated with gilt carvings, while the dome-shaped ceiling features paintings and a grand chandelier.
Artifacts in the basement, and a grand garden
The Royal Apartments were divided between the King’s, the Queen’s and those of the Royal Princes and Princesses. The King’s apartments are divided between the Old and the New Apartments. The old apartments features four drawing rooms dedicated to the seasons of Spring, summer, Autumn and Winter. The New Apartments features three chambers, the Hall of Mars, the Hall of Astrea and the Throne Hall.
The palace was only considered completed in 1847 when the Throne Hall was finally decorated, after being left undecorated for over half a century, and almost a century from commencement of construction here. The Hall was originally meant to be dedicated to the glories of the Bourbon dynasty, with statues of the Kings emplaced in niches along the walls of the Chamber. This design, however, would have destabilized the structure of the building, and the hall was thus left abandoned until 1845, when the designs were modified and the work completed.
Located in the “dungeons” of the palace is the Territoria and Opera Museum. One exhibit shows the works of the architect, Vanvitelli, and his documents and work related to the building of the Palace. Also exhibited are archeaological artifacts from ancient civilizations such as the Etrurians and Samnites who occupied the land long ago.
The gardens of the palace comprise has both formal and “naturalistic” elements. To the left is the “Boscha Vecchio”, or old woods. These forests were located here before the palace was built. Right to the rear of the palace is the main central area, or Parterre, with green lawns and a fish pond. The main axis extends to a series of fountains dedicated to various figures of greek and roman mythology — Aeolus, Cerere, and Venus, culminating in the Grande Cascata waterfall dedicated to Diana, goddess of the hunt.
The final element of the garden, which was not part of the original plan, is the English Garden. It was planned by Queen Maria Carolina, and its informal structure contrasts with the more classical elements in the main central area and the fountains. Possibly the first of its kind in Italy, the garden has more “playful” components such as a maze, a nymph lake decorated with ruins imported from Pompeii, and a lodge with greenhouses located around it.
The Palace Apartments are open to visitors from 9 am — 1.30 pm. Mon to Sat. and 9 am — 1 pm on Sun. and Public Holidays.
The park is open from 9 am to 6 pm everyday, while the Territoria and Opera Museum is open from 9 am to noon.