Versailles ‘all’italiana’

About a half hour’s drive north of Naples is a garden I’ve been wanting to see for some time.  It was created for the Reggia di Caserta (rej-jee-uh dee cah-zair-tuh).  The Royal Palace of Caserta, which in 1991 was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its role as the ‘swan song of the spectacular art of the Baroque’.


The Reggia di Caserta, about 20 km inland from Naples, lies hidden behind Mt. Vesuvius.

But how to get there?  There was no way I was going to get behind the wheel along the Amalfi Coast in this life again and, after hearing horror stories from tourists – and locals – about driving in Naples, I wasn’t going any where near that city.  In the end I did the ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ thing.  I came at it from the north.


Sperlonga. Utterly charming, even on a cloudy day.

A popular weekend getaway for Romans is the seaside resort of Sperlonga.  It’s a two hour drive from Rome – more with heavy, weekend traffic.  About the same as the drive from Toronto to ‘cottage country’ and the lakes north of the city.

Sperlonga is also half way between Rome and Caserta – the perfect place to break up my trip.


Although the two destinations could not be more different, the pleasures they offer city dwellers have a lot in common – relief from the smog and searing heat of summer in the city and lots of natural beauty.

But while the charms of Muskoka have been known for only a century or so, Sperlonga has been a summer destination of choice since the time of the ancient Romans.  Tiberius built a summer getaway – one of many – along the beach east of the village.


View of the beach east of Sperlonga.  The entrance to Tiberius’ Grotto is at the far end of the beach.

Like most of those grand Imperial Residences, after the fall of the Roman Empire, this one lay abandoned and forgotten, apart from occasional squatters and pillagers, for centuries.  It was only discovered by chance in the late 1950’s during construction of the coastal road.


It may be cold and rainy, but the beach chairs and umbrellas are still set out in astonishing precision.

After all those centuries of neglect and pillaging, there was little left of the villa, but a surprising number of statues were found.  They are now displayed, along with all sorts of artifacts and bits and pieces, in an extraordinary little museum you pass through on your way to the grotto.


Circe, the beautiful witch goddess and three of Ulysee’s men she has transformed into pigs for the evening meal. Circa III-II B.C.

Almost all the statues depict scenes from the Odyssey, a favourite with the emperors of Ancient Rome.


The Blinding of Polyphemus, the giant Cyclope who had imprisoned Ulysses and his men.


There are lots of very informative panels – many of which are, as commentators on Trip Advisor have grumpily noted, in Italian only.  This one presents a possible reconstruction of the grotto.


Entrance to the grotto. In the centre was an island where the Emperor and his guests would dine.


The walls of the grotto, now covered with mosses and algae, once glittered with marble.


From the grotto entrance, a view of Sperlonga.

A short drive further down the coast there is another monument from Ancient Rome.


High above the seaside resort of Terracina, Il Tempio di Giove. Jupiter’s Temple. Circa 1st century B.C.

But before I went up there it was, happily, once again, l’ora di mangiare.


The sun had come out and the beach at the bottom of the mountain was beautiful. At first I was surprised to see so few people on the beach and then I realized what was going on – they were all at the seaside restaurant nearby.


A table overlooking the sea, spaghetti ai frutti di mare – spaghetti with the ‘fruits of the sea’ – and un quarto of the local white wine.  Perfetto!  

Eventually I roused myself and headed for the temple.  I was relieved to see the road continuing higher and higher up the mountain.  When it finally ended, it was only a short climb to the top.


It was remarkable the way caper bushes and rock roses had taken root in the temple walls.

Like Tiberius’ Grotto, the walls of the temple had once been covered in marble.  Now Nature decorated these rough walls with caper bushes and rock roses


View from the temple towards the countryside north of Naples and the Reggia di Caserta.

From Jupiter’s Temple it’s a few centuries and an hour and a half drive to the Royal Palace in Caserta.

In the 18th century the Kingdom of Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples were united under the Spanish Bourbons.   By then Naples had grown into a magnificent city, and was the logical site for the Reggia, the Royal Palace.  But King Carlo, the first of those Bourbon rulers, had other plans.  Instead, he chose Caserta, a small, unremarkable village about 20 km inland from Naples, as the setting for the new royal residence.

This view of Sant'Agata dei Goti, the village I stayed in while visiting the Reggia, gives a sense of what Caserta would have been like at the time.

This view of Sant’Agata dei Goti, the village I stayed in while visiting the Reggia, gives a sense of what Caserta would have been like at the time.

Why Caserta?  Well, what the ambitious king had in mind wasn’t just a grand castle. He was going to create a magnificent new capital city, modelled on what Louis XIV had created at Versailles.  And for that he needed space.  A lot of space.


The access to the garden is through the entrance ‘foyer’ of the castle.

And it just so happened that in Caserta there was an enormous piece of land owned by an anti-Bourbon activist who had recently had a huge chunk of his property confiscated by the Bourbons.  King Carlo figured it wouldn’t take much to convince him to sell, at a price very favourable to the king.


In addition to price, another thing Caserta had in its favour was its location.  So far inland, the pirates and various foreign fleets that plagued Naples and the coastline, would not be a problem.


If any of this looks familiar, the palace is a favourite with movie directors. Scenes from countless movies, including Star Wars, Mission Impossible and Angels & Demons, have been filmed here.

But work had barely begun when Carlo abdicated – perhaps in the hopes that ruling Spain would be preferable to dealing with two unwieldy kingdoms – leaving his son in charge of the construction of the palace.  Not surprisingly, by the time the 8 year old Ferdinand was finished, the castle was even more grandiose than anything Carlo had envisaged.


Not for the first time I was amazed at the up-close and very hands-on approach many Italians take to their cultural heritage.

The Reggia may be Italy’s ‘Mini Versailles’ but it is still enormous, so if you want to visit the garden before the palace closes – and, maybe more importantly, before you run out of energy – you just have to put on the blinkers and march yourself right out of the palace.


But which way?

When you do find your way out of the palace, you can head straight, or you can take a path – an unmarked path – to the left, which, according to an article I found in a local magazine, leads to an interesting area called the Bosco Vecchio.  The Old Forest.  Since the bosco was an essential feature of all the best Renaissance gardens of Tuscany, I was intrigued to see how it would be interpreted in the mostly Baroque south.

The author of the article warned that the paths were somewhat trascurati (neglected).


Used as I am to paths in Canada, I didn’t find it at all neglected. What I did find was that it was alarmingly lacking in signage. With no-one in sight, I felt as if I could be in the Canadian wilds.


That feeling did not last long.


In my travels around Italy I have learned that it’s not a place to take the path less travelled.


At the edge of the forest was a magnificent Magnolia Grandiflora.


Not far from the magnolia was the Castelluccia (ratty, little castle), originally designed for mock battles and later transformed into a cozy – and not at all ratty – retreat.

Given the history of the Reggia and the grand ambitions of the Bourbons, you’d expect something grander than the first fountain you come to.  And apart from a few roses, there is a surprising lack of flowers.  In fact, the whole thing is beginning to feel more like a park than a garden.


The very modest Fontana di Margherita.


The best feature of Margherita’s Fountain were the statues of the Muses in the hedge that encircles the area.


The second fountain was also rather modest.  That’s because of what happened at the next fountain.


The rather modest Fontana dei Dolfini.

La Fontana di Eoli was to be the crowning glory of the garden.   There is, of course, a lot going on here, but the original plans called for twice as many statues, even more extravagant than these.  But the fountain was barely half finished, when it became undeniably clear that the Bourbon coffers were being drained at an unsustainable rate.


In these power statement ‘gardens’ little is ever simply aesthetic. Here Aeolus, god of the winds, (the statues with the little wings) has ordered the winds to attack the Trojans and drive them away from the coast of Italy.

Money wasn’t the only problem.  The Bourbon flotillas were finding it harder and harder, especially after the French took control of the Algerian coastline, to capture the Muslim sailors/pirates that had provided the slave labour for the construction of the fountains.


I loved the two little pigeons – or are they doves – in the alcove, safely out of reach of the howling winds.


From the balustrade overlooking Aeolus’ winds, a view looking back to the palace. On the left, one of the statues depicting the slave labour used to construct the fountains.

It was a long, very long walk to the next fountain.  And, apart from the roses around the first fountain, not a flower in sight. I was beginning to wonder why it is called il Giardino della Reggia di Caserta?


It was a long way, a very long way to the next fountain.

I have a feeling that whether something is called a garden or a park in Italy is one of those seemingly straightforward questions that takes on a slippery murkiness as soon as you scratch the surface.  I’ve visited giardini, like this one, that I thought were parks and I’ve visited others that I thought were parks, with areas of gardens, like Il Giardino di Boboli in Florence.  I’ve been to un parco that I thought really was a park, although a very strange one – Il Parco dei Mostri (Park of Monsters) aka Sacro Bosco in Bomarzo, but I don’t recall ever visiting un parco that I would have called un giardino.


By the time I reached the Fountain of Ceres I was wishing I was on a bicycle – you can rent them – like the fellow on the other side of the channel.

In ogni caso, (‘in any event’, for newcomers to my blog) King Ferdinando couldn’t have cared less whether visitors thought it was a park or a garden.  Like Louis XIV, his goal was to create a statement of power.  Absolute power.  And what better way to symbolize that power than a broad, perfectly straight avenue that ripped its way through the countryside, obliterating everything in its path?


The Fountain of Venus and Adonis.

Almost there.  Even if you’re feeling somewhat annoyed by this point at having come all this way and seen nothing remotely like the garden you expected to find, it’s hard not to see that this is a fascinating, if not beautiful group of statues.  Even if you’re not a fan of the Baroque period.


Hunting was the king’s favourite activity.  He went hunting every day.  Apparently he found the killing of small, defenceless animals had a therapeutic effect on an inherited tendency to melancholy.


Knowing that he will be killed by the wild boar waiting nearby, Venus begs Andonis not to go hunting.


While he waits, the boar keeps an eye on the palace in the distance.

As I have said before, for places that we tend to think of as oases of tranquillity and peace, there is an awful lot of violence going on in many Italian gardens.

The last fountain, at the base of the waterfall, is another hunting scene.   Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, has taken off her clothes and is about to bathe when she and the nymphs that attend her catch sight of Actaeon spying on her.


The nymphs rush to cover the naked goddess who, as punishment for the violation, transforms the wretched Actaeon into a stag.


Actaeon, in the midst of being transformed into a stag, soon to be torn to pieces by his own dogs.


All the water for the enormous channel is brought by an aqueduct constructed solely for this purpose. Like countless others this man-made waterfall was inspired by Bernini’s Fontana di Nettuno at Villa d’Este. (I’ll get there. Eventually.)

It’s tempting to start the long walk back to the palace.  At least it’s downhill.  But there is another palace giardino. And we are standing right next to the entrance to that garden.   When will we ever get the chance to return?




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