NAPLES, ITALY (AFP) – The Royal Palace of Caserta, a long-neglected architectural jewel near Naples, is being returned to its former glory through a vast restoration project, partly financed by the European Union’s (EU) recovery fund.
Nicknamed the “Italian Versailles”, after the royal palace near Paris, the Italian United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) site boasts 1,200 rooms, 1,742 windows and 123 hectares of lush gardens.
It was built on the orders of the King of Naples Charles of Bourbon, with work beginning in 1752 under the direction of architect Luigi Vanvitelli.
But it fell into neglect after Italy’s unification at the end of the 19th century, and was used only rarely after that, such as when it served as the Allied headquarters during the World War II.
From restoring the facades to reviving the gardens and repairing the gates, remedying the ravages of time is proving a titanic task.
Efforts made so far were rewarded last week when the palace won a third star – the highest accolade – in the prestigious Michelin Green Guide to Southern Italy.
The Michelin Green Guides’ director Philippe Orain told AFP the restoration so far was “remarkable”.The palace has also earned points for its collection of contemporary art, showcased in the royal apartments, as well as its decision to open to visitors in the evenings and at Christmas.
The third star lifts the palace and its gardens, complete with reflecting pools and gushing waterfall, to the level of the Pompeii archaeological site.
“It is a recognition that we hope will make us known throughout Europe and the world,” said the palace’s director Tiziana Maffei.
Once home to Queen Marie-Caroline, Marie-Antoinette’s sister, the palace was designed to be “an expression of power but also of cultural prestige”, Maffei said.
The restoration comes with a stiff price tag, but the project has received around EUR25 million (USD27 million) from the European post-pandemic recovery fund.
Maffei said it was “very little” compared to the total costs, but it would help restore the aqueduct, which carries water to the palace’s fountains, canals and basins, over a distance of 40 kilometres.
The palace serves as a location for film shoots, from Star Wars to Angels and Demons, which help lift its profile – and can raise unexpected extra funds too.
Maffei cites Tom Cruise, who she said paid for the curtain in the palace theatre to be restored while he was there filming Mission Impossible.
Visitors to the royal apartments first climb a vast staircase, under the fierce gaze of marble lions.
Above them is an immensive dome, below which lies a hidden platform, where musicians were once housed out of sight, to play as distinguished guests arrived.
Beyond the palace lie the Old Woods and the English Garden, one of the few great European gardens still intact, boasting temples, lakes and some 200 or so different species of rare and exotic plants. United Kingdom tourist Terry Thompson, on holiday with her husband, said the revived royal palace now rivals even the imposing Vatican in Rome.
“I can honestly say that here it is as beautiful, if not more beautiful,” she said.
“It’s absolutely superb: the colours, the paintings, the ceilings, the gilding… it’s really worth a visit.”