You may have traveled to the Campania region to experience the archeological wonders of Pompeii, or the serene beaches of the Amalfi coast. Or maybe you’re just in Naples for the pizza and the exquisite pastries. Either way, you can’t leave the region without experiencing two of the most historic and beautifully-designed royal palaces in Europe, let alone Italy.
The Royal Palace of Naples (The Palazzo Reale Di Napoli)
If you’re looking for things to do in Naples, look no further than the Palazzo Reale. It combines art, architecture and all the confusion of Italy’s political history. Construction of the palace began in the 17th Century for King Philip III of Spain, who, incidentally never came. The “power” façade, so called because of the eight statues of Neapolitan rulers from the 12th to 19th Centuries adorning its walls, was completed in 1616. The frescoes, painted by Baroque artists such as Giovanni Balducci, were completed in 1620. However, the Royal Chapel of Assumption was only completed in 1644 by Antonio Picchiotti. It finally became the official royal residence of the Bourbons when Charles III of Spain arrived in 1734.
With every new ruler, the palace expanded. The kings and queens remodeled to suit their times and their tastes. Of particular note are the influence of two powerful Neapolitan women rulers: Maria Carolina, queen consort of Ferdinand IV and sister of Marie-Antoinette, and Caroline Bonaparte, the ambitious little sister of Napoleon Bonaparte and wife of Joachim Murat, a charismatic French leader.
Maria Carolina was more than just a pretty face. Her power was negotiated as one of the terms of her marriage contract, which was convenient since Ferdinand IV was more interested in the decadent royal lifestyle than governance, Maria Carolina ruled Naples from 1768 to 1806. She was known as a patron of the arts; the extravagant Teatrino di Corte in the Palazzo Reale was built for her wedding to Ferdinand.
Carolina Bonaparte was also another powerful Queen of Naples, ruling with her charismatic husband from 1808 to 1815. She and her husband are responsible for the neoclassical style in many of the rooms of the Palace.
The rooms these women used in the Palace are often more ornately decorated than those their husbands used, a testament to the immense power they held. In fact, the queen’s rooms in the Palazzo Reale read like an art textbook on the various styles in Europe — from ornate gilded stucco work, to rococo ceilings, to 19th Century furniture imported from France and England.
Another feature that makes the Palazzo Reale one of the must-sees in Naples is the great marble staircase or the Scalone d’onore, built in the 1600s and refurbished after a fire 200 years later.
Last but certainly not least, the Palazzo Reale houses the National Library. Here you will find papyrus from Herculaneum, the city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, and remnants of the fifth Century Coptic bible. If you’re a classical music fan, you can see Verdi’s letters and the autographs of Liszt and Rossini.
The Royal Palace of Caserta (Reggia di Caserta)
Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, the Reggia di Caserta is not only the largest Italian Palace, it is one of the largest palaces erected in Europe in the 18th Century. If we’re talking in terms of volume, it is also the largest royal residence in the world. In a nutshell, if you are wondering what to do in and around Naples, plan to spend the day in Caserta, because this is one big palace with a lot to see.
Construction of the Reggia di Caserta began under the reign of Charles VII in 1752 and took centuries to complete. Modeled after Versailles, it wasn’t only meant to be a decadent fever dream of the ruling class; the inland location made it one of the easiest-to-defend palazzos of the Neapolitan rulers. It boasts 1,200 rooms spread over five floors, designed to accommodate not only the royal family, but also the Neapolitan court and government.
More than 40 rooms in the palace are adorned with frescoes covering a range of styles: from baroque to rococo, neoclassical to the stately empire style of the 19th Century. In addition to the frescoes, two of the royal apartments provide splendid examples of 18th and 19th Century style and design.
Similar to the Palazzo Reale, the Reggia di Caserta boasts a magnificent staircase, designed by renowned architect Luigi Vanvitelli. With its multi-coloured marble and its seamless blend of baroque and classical elements, Vanvitelli set the trend for aristocratic residences throughout Europe.
Once your eyes get tired of all the gilded stucco and your neck hurts from staring at all the ceiling frescoes, step outside to experience the extraordinary royal gardens. Once again inspired by Versailles, Vanvitelli designed the gardens with a telescopic effect stretching it out over 120 hectares. If you’re looking at gardens from the palace, this effect makes them seem to touch the horizon. The gardens are chock full of temples, statues depicting mythological figures, waterfalls, pools, fountains… you name it. The gardens even boast a naturalist English garden commissioned by Queen Maria Carolina, who was probably trying to keep up with her upstart sister Marie-Antoinette who installed one at Versailles. The gardens are a testament to the principles of Renaissance design and some of the most beautiful you will encounter in Europe if not the world.