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Episode #112: Caserta Palace – A Glittering Jewel Near Naples

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In this episode, we look beyond the more well-known Italian history of Ancient Rome and the Renaissance and head to the 18th-century to learn about the wealthy and powerful Kingdom of Naples and an incredible woman from a powerful family that had influence all over Europe and a palace so grand that some say, was more dazzling than the Palace of Versailles – the Royal Palace of Caserta.

Show notes

We talk to Danielle Oteri who is an art historian and runs a tour business Feast Travel specializing in southern Italy with her cousins based in the beautiful Cilento region, who has an unquenchable passion for and in-depth knowledge of southern Italy. She tells us the stories of this fascinating but often neglected period in Italian history and walks us through this beautifully preserved, huge palace complex, with its stunning ground, royal apartments, and it even has its own opera house!

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. La Reggia di Caserta is actually the worlds largest palace – at around three times the size of Versailles – specifically built, in fact, to outdo Versaille, whose lady of the house, Maria Antoinette is the sister of Caserta’s Maria Carolina
  2. Queen Maria Carolina, after seeing her sister go to the guillotine, managed to steer the Neapolitan revolution in the opposite direction after her sister was killed by the guillotine
  3. Despite being the same distance from Naples as Sorrento, the palace of Caserta is not very well known and there’s not a large amount of foreign tourists that go there. Italians know it very well (and you see a lot of Italian schools on field trips there), but non-Italian tourists don’t really seem to know it very well at all
  4. One of the most amazing things about Caserta is that it is in an amazing state of preservation. Versailles was heavily bombed during World War II, and it was largely rebuilt (thanks to a lot of money from philanthropists outside of France). Caserta was – after it ceased being the home of the Royal family,  was pretty much kept up by the locals – always being a point of pride. It was briefly the Italian Air Force Academy in the 1940s and then the Allied Force headquarters and the Rest center for the US Fifth Army, which was part of Operation Avalanche to liberate Europe from the Nazis. It eventually became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997
  5. Naples was, at the height of the palace, an incredibly important and international city – rivaled only in sophistication by Paris. In contrast to the rest of Italy, which was the papal state, south of Rome and including the island of Sicily, was a Kingdom. It was called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and was an absolute monarchy. It had in the countryside a feudal system that lasted much longer than other feudal systems in Europe
  6. There’s a palace in Naples itself and quite a few other palaces around as the Bourbon dynasty, which was the last Royal dynasty before the unification of Italy in 1861, was a very powerful and very wealthy one
  7. When King Charles VII of Naples and V of Sicily became King Charles III of Spain (also King of Gozo), it made him ineligible to hold all three crowns so he abdicated his Neapolitan and Sicilian titles in favour of his third son Ferdinand. Ferdinand who was not the brightest guy in the world and Maria Carolina was married off to him by her hugely powerful mother Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, she found somebody that’s only real interest was in hunting and having a good time. The common people of Naples loved him. They called him King ‘Lazzarone’ the beggar King in English. He liked to eat spaghetti with his hands while he was in his box seat at the opera. He liked to sell fish at the fish market with all just the regular folks of Naples. And who’s going to have to rule that Kingdom if he’s too busy hunting? The Queen, of course. 
  8. The trouble with having a husband, who was so kind of intellectually useless but yet beloved and really well-liked, was that it made her the bad cop. She was the one who made the rules, so history has often written her as not quite a villain, but not the compelling, interested, engaged, active, progressive person that she was
  9. The designer, Luigi Vanvitelli was commissioned to create the most beautiful palace in Europe (literally to rival Versaille!). At the back of the palace he created what is known as the Telescope Effect – you look out and you see this fountain that’s far off in the distance and there are paths on either side of it. It seems close enough for a short stroll, however once you start to walk what you thin would take you 10/20 minutes tops – 20 minutes later and it feels like you’ve barely moved. This is because of this telescope effect designed by the architect
  10. The gardens could definitely be described as the start of the show. They are definitely pleasure gardens. There were places for King Ferdinand to go hunting, for everybody to go outside and enjoy nature, with lots of fountains and sculptures, but they were also important centers of study. Maria Carolina in particular was an important figure in science at that time and they imported different species of plants and studied them
  11. The nearby San Leucio Silk Factory complex (well worth a visit today),  a couple of miles out, a whole resort grew around silk production in the 18th century.  Maria Carolina’s father-in-law Charles had young local men, from the lower classes sent to France to learn the art of silk weaving and then come back. They also wound up importing some Masters from France. And in the Caserta region, there actually are people with French last names who trace their lineage back to this period. The industrial town that grew out of the community was in 1789 deemed the “Real Colonia dei Setaioli” (the Silk Weavers Royal Colony)
  12. Here Maria Carolina created an entire little city that had quarters for the workers to live and work in the same place. It was a place where all of their children would have education, men and women were treated completely equally, (revolutionary at this time). They were trying to create a colony that was based on Enlightenment values. It was a social experiment and a very unusual one at the time. People were only going to have to work an eleven-hour workday, which sounds like a lot today, but at that time, the standard work day was 14 hours. Hugely progressive ideas –  everybody in the colony would have running water, they would have health services provided to them, there would be no such thing as private property – the workers would own a portion of everything. The only reason it didn’t fully come into being was because of the Neapolitan revolution which broke out. Although the whole project was stalled, the silk factories continued to work and are actually still in existence today and they produce textiles for Buckingham Palace and for the White House. It’s a very small and exclusive production. But you can also go visit there and see the ancient Silk Mills and see how the weaving techniques are done
  13. When the Neapolitan Revolution breaks out, the couple is actually deposed and has to flee to Sicily for six months, whilst there is the short-lived Parthenopean Republic (essentially ruled by the French). Maria Carolina allied with the British Navy in order to put down the revolution and found herself having to turn against a lot of the ideals that she had been seeking in these intellectual circles and many of these progressive ideas, including this sort of workers utopia that was also at Caserta, in order to restore power. This especially was driven by fear after seeing what happened to her sister, Maria Antoinette during the French Revolution
  14. They stayed in power and Maria Carolina lives into her 60s – a ripe old age in a time before ant-biotics)
  15. The foods of the Royal court are some of our most beloved Italian foods today, especially pastries. Naples has this amazing pastry tradition, like the famous Sfogliatella and Baba. These things were created by French pastry chefs who were in service of the Bourbon Royals. Things like Sfogliatella is not a pastry that anybody ever made at home – Nonna never made those. Those are always something that the pastry chefs who served very wealthy people like the Royals and then opened up pastry shops in very fashionable districts of cities would sell
  16. They had a strange idea at the time, which permeated all of Europe and the American colonies as well, which was that colorful food was bad for you. So they believed that food that was either beige or white/creamy was good for you. Things like Mushroom Pâté of the Two Sicilies. They also ate a lot of finger foods. Things like frittata di pasta (spaghetti pie) –  basically pasta that’s mixed with a custard of eggs and then baked so that you can then slice it like a piece of cake and eat it that way. Bread stuffed with cheeses and meats was very common. A lot of the Italian Easter pies that people make are artifacts of that time period in Naples
  17. Film fans can checkout Caserta was used as the Palace of Naboo (the Theed Royal Palace) in Star Wars and it was also in Mission Impossible, The Two Popes, and Angels and Demons
  18. TOP TIP on a trip to nearby Naples – go see an opera – even if opera is not your thing. Because when you see one in Naples, everybody sings along. Here opera is not for snooty highbrow intellectuals. When you see an Italian opera in Naples, everybody knows the words. It’s like folk music. And to hear them singing along is really moving and prices aren’t high – you could pay around $60 USD. You can buy tickets online, but you can also just walk up to the box office at the opera house as soon as you arrive in the city and see what’s playing that week

What to Expect on a Visit to Caserta

  1. One of the biggest reasons people don’t go there is that they think it’s hard to get to, but in fact, it may not obvious, but it’s pretty easy. t’s probably about 40 minutes outside the city if you’re driving and you can just take a train for bus from Naples. The train actually stops directly across the street from the front door
  2. Caserta is not really a destination in itself – it’s a pretty busy, modern-looking, industrial city. But as you near the palace you’ll start to notice these elaborate gardens, with sculpted shrubs and then you’ll see this huge palace emerge
  3. As you approach, you walk up this very, very long driveway. When you enter, you’re in sort of an open courtyard. And then there are different directions that you can take as a tourist, what you’re going to see mostly are the Royal apartments
  4. You can buy your ticket when you arrive and it’s pretty inexpensive around 9 Euro and you can spend the entire day there. There’s a little public cafeteria to have lunch there. It’s not so great, so if you’re hungry there’s a sort of a little town not far away which has some great little local pizzerias. but Caserta is such an enormous place, though, you’re probably going to want the whole day there
  5. Wear comfortable shoes because there is a LOT of walking – Danielle tracked her walk through the apartments alone on her phone and it was close to 15,000 steps
  6. So the Royal apartments are the residential quarters where people were actually living. Marble floors, elaborate baroque paintings on every ceiling in every single room, giant rooms completely encrusted in gold leaf. It is a pretty over-the-top palace, which makes you realize how wealthy and powerful the Kingdom of Naples was. In the 1700s when this kingdom was at its prime, Rome had passed its greatness and was considered quite a backwater
  7. There are 1200 rooms, 34 staircases, 1790 windows. The Royal family of course lived there as did their entire administration. There was an opera house inside, a military barracks inside, a University, a library. An entire Kingdom’s within one site
  8. The gardens at Caserta really are the main attraction in the palace itself. The opera house is pretty amazing also. If you do, unfortunately, get a rainy day when visiting Naples, you could happily spend that day wandering the interiors
  9. The way that the palace is constructed is on a grid system, so one kind of gallery after the next –  ballrooms, meeting rooms, bedrooms – and in every single one of them, there’s artwork, there’s furniture and there are fashions
  10. There’s also a small, but very good contemporary art museum that’s on the property
  11. Danielle has some great advice on visiting a site as large and grand as Caserta –  it’s worth doing some research/reading up on one person before you visit. When you visit a space like this that’s so massive, it can be really overwhelming and so it’s really fun to attach to one person in history. So in Caserta’s case finding out more about the powerhouse Maria Carolina and indeed her eating spaghetti by hand and hunting obsessed husband
  12. Historical novels set at the time are a great read to give you background. From Diana Giovanni’s new novel based on the life of Maria Carolina to the 1980s book by Susan Sontag which interweaves the Neopolitan revolution through the love affair between Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton

About our guest – Danielle Oteri from Feast Travel

danielle oteri feast on history

 

Danielle Oteri is a writer, art historian, and founder of Feast Travel (formerly known as Feast on History) a food, wine and art school specializing in Southern Italy. She is passionate about the city of Naples and surrounds and knows it inside out – including where to get the best sfogliatella and life-changing pizza. After visiting her grandmother’s town on the Cilento Coast she was inspired to celebrate her family’s homeland and help others do the same.

Danielle offers services for both itinerary consulting, itinerary design as well as Feast Travel’s own group tours. She publishes fantastic information on the many treasures of Southern Italy to help people can reach and learn more about them, especially as information available in English is hard to come by for many of these places. 

If you’re visiting New York City you can also join Danielle’s company Arthur Avenue Food Tours on a delicious walk through Little Italy.

You can find Danielle on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Cilento – coastal area in the region of Campania 
  • Palace of Portici – another royal palace in Portici, Southeast of Naples along the coast, in Campania
  • Herculaneum – ancient town buried under volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, re-discovered when they were building the Palace of Portici
  • Boboli Gardens – park in Florence, directly behind the Pitti Palace first created for the Medici family
  • National Archaeological Museum Naples – an important collection including works from Greek, Roman, and Renaissance times, and in particular artifacts from nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum. From 1816 to 1861 it was known as Real Museo Borbonico (“the Royal Bourbon Museum”)
  • San Leucio Silk Factory – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 and 3.5 km northwest of Caserta
  • Portici – a town at the foot of Mount Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples and a favorite place of Mozart

Recommended Reading

Resources

  • The House of Bourbon-Two Sicilies – Italian branch of the Spanish Bourbons that ruled Southern Italy and Sicily for more than a century in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • Maria Carolina (of Austria) – was Queen of Naples and Sicily as the wife of King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies
  • Empress Maria Theresa – Maria Carolina’s mother and ruler of the Habsburg dominions from 1740 until her death in 1780, and the only woman to hold the position
  • The Enlightenment – an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries of ideas centered on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge, and ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state
  • Luigi Vanvitelli – the most prominent 18th-century architect of Italy and designer of Caserta
  • Bernardo Tanucci – tutor of Ferdinand IV
  • Parthenopean Republic – a short-lived, semi-autonomous republic within the Kingdom of Naples after a revolution and supported by France
  • Alois – wine-makers who originated from France coming to Italy for silk-making
  • frittatina – a Neopolitan streetfood of a mini frittata made with pasta, ham, peas, and béchamel sauce and fried
  • sfogliatella and babà – the most famous examples of Neopolitan pasty
  • Pâté of the Two Sicilies –  a (once regal) dish of cream and mushrooms
  • Theed Royal Palace/Palace of Naboo – the fictional Star Wars palace
  • The Two Popes – a film about Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis
  • Angels and Demons – film based on the Dan Brown novel 
  • Puccini – famous Italian opera composer
  • Cosi fan tutte – opera by Mozart set on the Bay of Naples
  • cornicello – in Naples, the lucky horn is an object of good luck to defend oneself against the evil eye and negative influences

Resources from Untold Italy

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