Postcard from Caserta, Italy: When keeping up with the neighbors means Versailles

Reggia di Caserta

Foolish me. I thought the Royal Palace we visited earlier in Naples was lavish enough to suit the needs of the royal court, but Charles III (his later Spanish title) (1716-1788) had yet more grandiose ideas. He desired a new site for his capital, one farther removed from the coast to prevent invasions by sea and, most importantly, one with a palace to rival Versailles.

In 1752, Charles commissioned architect Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773) for the massive project, Reggia di Caserta, on land to the east of Naples. The result: 1,200 rooms on five floors making the palace 118 feet tall. Almost 500,000 square feet occupying 11 acres. The architect was able to employ the finest materials – travertine from Bellona; bricks from Capua; gray marble from Mondragone; white marble from Carrara. Immense single blocks of lava stone from Trapani were used for each step of the grand stairway that divides into two parallel flights of stairs of 116 steps guarded by two white marble lions.

But Charles as King of Naples never got to reside in his dream palace because he had to move on to a bigger role as King of Spain. So the incredible digs were left for his son, Ferdinand (1751-1825), and his wife, Maria Carolina of Austria (1752-1814), to finish. If sibling rivalry existed, Maria Carolina should have been more than pleased with the palace. Her sister, Maria Antoinette (1755-1793), spent much of her time at Versailles with her husband, King Louis XVI of France (1754-1793).

Maria Carolina was a proponent of enlightened absolutism until she became alarmed by the revolutionary ideas spreading through France. She began work in earnest to transform Naples into a police state. The abrupt end to her sister’s life intensified and helped justify those efforts. Needless to say, this did not enhance her popularity, but no matter. The monarchs soon had to flee as Napoleon conquered their kingdom; although Ferdinand would return later with assistance from Austria.

Enough politics.

In addition to keeping Vanvitelli occupied until the end of his life with finishing out the royal palace, Ferdinand and Maria Carolina enlisted him to design a Royal Park worthy of such a palace. The queen’s English garden covers 30 acres. The king’s mile-long fish pond provided a stage for him to float elaborate mock naval battles for the entertainment of his guests. A grand cascade of water was installed on the summit of a hill opposite the palace. Oh, and a 24-mile aqueduct, a hydraulic architectural feat, was built to keep the water flowing.

UNESCO/NHK Video

Walking a couple of miles exploring all the secret gardens filled with sculpture and fountains had been our plan when we hopped aboard for the short train ride from Naples. But, alas, the beauty of the palace and grounds of Caserta had attracted the attention of another. A film production company.

Not only were crew members scurrying around installing special lighting, rearranging furniture and adding props (see the sculpture of the man brandishing his sword astride a bear with a double-headed eagle crest on the door behind him) inside the palace, but they were filming a scene on the grounds. Meaning we were not invited. The scene we saw filmed involved a huge cast gathered to greet the important occupants of an arriving coach (no photos allowed). There are several photos above of cast members scurrying through a courtyard of the palace to prepare for their next scenes.

The film? The crest indicates a period piece focusing on Russian royalty. But the production is hardly the first to take advantage of the sumptuous palace. Think Queen Amidala’s royal palace on Naboo in Star Wars Attack of the Clones and The Phantom Palace. Angels and Demons directed by Ron Howard in 2009 and Mission Impossible 3 with Tom Cruise in 2006. And then Richard Dreyfus portrayed architect Vanvitelli himself in Caserta Palace Dream.

 Caserta Palace Dream, 2014

In 2017, Stephen Spielberg found the grand stairway ideal for a parade of cardinals for his film, still in production, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.

And one need not starve. We dropped in Osteria da Miducci and ordered eggplant and pasta before the table of locals next to us began receiving their heaping platters of seafood. Our freshly made pasta was perfect, but envy surfaced. Not sure I could have cleaned it down to the bones the way the presiding gentleman with the Godfather voice did, but I would have ordered his whole fried fish, which arrived plated perched upright on its fins as though it swam there voluntarily, for the snapshot alone.

Postcard from Turin, Italy: Worshipping in the ‘Temple of Cinema’

Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.

Director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

It is hard to imagine a more dramatic setting for The National Museum of Cinema (Museo Nazionale del Cinema Torino) than its home in Turin. Surrounded by banks and banks of flickering screens on multiple levels of ramps encircling the main “temple,” all eyes immediately are drawn upward to the amazing dome seemingly hovering above. Jimmy Stewart never could have rescued Kim Novak from the observation deck atop the dome if he were required to board the vertiginous elevator soaring upward to reach her (Vertigo, 1958).

I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.

Director Francois Truffaut (1932-1984)

The year Vertigo was released in theaters was the year the Museum of Cinema opened in a wing of the Royal Palace in Turin. However, in the 1980s the exhibition space was declared no longer up to code, and it was closed to the public.

The camera’s a ballpoint pen, an imbecile; it’s not worth anything if you don’t have anything to say.

Director Roberto Rossellini (1906-1977)

Rewind briefly to the birth of a spectacular Turin landmark: the Mole Antonellian. During the period when Turin briefly was capital of the new Italian state (1860-1864), the Jewish community wanted a new synagogue worthy of capital status. They hired architect Alessandro Antonelli (1798-1888) to complete the project for them on a set budget. But Antonelli’s dreams continued to soar higher and higher, resulting in continuing alterations in the plans. He added more than 150 feet to the original planned height of the dome, and the projected costs far surpassed the original agreed upon amount. Antonelli’s unhappy clients pulled the plug, halting construction upward in 1869.

Going to the cinema is like returning to the womb; you sit there, still and meditative in the darkness, waiting for life to appear on the screen.

Director Federico Fellini (1920-1993)

The city of Turin traded another piece of property for construction of a more budget-conscious synagogue and then undertook completion of the 550-foot-tall building it dedicated to King Victor Emanuele II (1820-1878). From ground level to the statue and star on the top of the dome, the Mole Antonellian was the tallest brick building in Europe upon its completion in 1889. From 1908-1938, Turin used the Mole as its Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento Italiano, tracing the history of Italy’s unification as a republic. After a 1953 storm destroyed those extra 150 feet or so on which Antonelli had insisted, the city reinforced the rebuilt section with metal.

I depend on style more than plot. It is how you do it, and not your content that makes you an artist. A story is simply a motif, just as a painter might paint a bowl of fruit just to give him something to be painting.

Director, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)

As part of the centenary celebrations of Italian unification in 1961, a panoramic lift was added inside the Mole Antonelliana. The glass elevator suspended in the dome will take those who don’t mind feeling as though hanging from the hands of the clock in Metropolis up to an observation deck offering views of the city from the perch 280 feet above the street below.

Mole Antonelliana became home to the National Museum of Cinema in 2000 and is an amazing location to fritter away a drizzly day.

Even if I set out to make a film about a fillet of sole, it would be about me.

Director Federico Fellini (1920-1993)

And then there is the allure of the dream job for any cinephile – night watchman in the museum. And, of course, there is film of that. Davide Farrario’s After Midnight (Dopo Mezzanotte) released in 2004. Click here to watch the trailer and find Stephen Holden’s review of it in the New York Times here.

Fortunately, somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether.

Director Luis Bunuel (1900-1983)