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Grand Ball at the Royal Palace of Caserta

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Summer is coming to an end and I must hurry if I want to enjoy one of the last openings of the Royal Apartments of Caserta.

So one Sunday evening I walk towards the Royal Palace. As soon as I enter the building, I start to take pictures of the royal stairs – which are considered one of the best inventions of Luigi Vanvitelli. There is a large central flight– that was made out of a single piece of marble – and two parralel ones, starting from a landing where there are two marble lions symbolizing the strenght of reason and weapons.

Suddenly my photographic talent is interrupted by background music…it sounds like…a waltz! This evening opening of the Royal apartments coincides with the “Grand Ball of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies” organized by the National Company of Historical Dance. I’m lucky! I run upstairs and I can see with my own eyes what I had already imagined when I heard the waltz. Ladies and gentlemen dancing in circles on the waltz notes make me feel as if I were living in a novel! The vintage dresses are very beautiful. Some are pink, some are yellow, but the most beautiful is the blue one! I try to take a picture of it but it is difficultwith all those ladies in motion. Luckily when the waltz stops the ladies pose for pictures.

Events of this kind are not new in Caserta. Even the association “Borboni si nasce” often organises events in period costumes at the various Bourbon residences. I think that – putting useless excessive nostalga aside – period costumes, dances and royal lunches are a very original way to celebrate our past and make it more interesting for visitors. After saying goodbye to the dancers, I start my tour of the Royal apartments–that I have visited often – in Alexander’s room (also called the “Marble Room”): the guide explains us the difference between the 18th century rooms and the 19th century ones. The first ones were inhabited by the Bourbons, the second ones were inhabited by Joachim Murat. The presence of San Leucio silk on the walls immediately catches my attention. It is no coincidence that the predominant colour of some bedrooms is the typical San Leucio yellow.

There are four rooms dedicated to the four seasons. In each of them the ceilings are frescoed with mythological motifs of Proserpina and Ceres. The wood inlays and shelves of the corners and consolles, rigorously in Vitulano or Mondragone marble, are noteworthy. The Murano glass chandeliers are beautiful.

I am astonished by the enormous Palatina Library that occupies three rooms and is equipped with globes and telescopes. The volumes collected there are about 14,000 and they are about different subjects: first of all Law and, more specifically, all the laws of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. But also Religion, Mathematics, Classical Literature and Science. Some books are open in order to show the beautiful images of plants and animals they have.

The evening visit to the royal apartments ends – in my opinion – with the highlight of the collection: the Bourbon Nativity Scene. The nativity scene tradition developed in Naples during the 18th century thanks to Charles of Bourbon, but it was Francis I who became a real collector. The nativity scene was set up not only by artists such as Bottiglieri, Sammartino, Mosca and Gori but also by ladies in waiting, who used to sew the shepherd’s clothes, often using the silk from San Leucio. The main figures were in terracotta, the secondary ones had their heads and hands in terracotta and their bodies in iron and tow.

In the evening the royal park is closed. So I decide to visit it the following weekend.

I arrive at 09:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. In the royal park there are already some friends of mine who are jogging. As soon as I reach the Dolphin’s Fountain, I am pleased to notice that it has been set up to host a boat race. There are the  buoys, the stands for spectators, the flags of Italy and the United Kingdom and, above all, the canoes! I find out that the Reggia Challenge Cup 2017 took place the day before. After a long day of boat races that involved about 20 Italian teams, the pool was the scene of a centuries-old challenge that traditionally takes place in the waters of the River Thames: the boat race between Cambridge and Oxford. The first one won 2- 0.

But I am not here for the race, I am here to attend the historical re-enactment of the first flight demonstration that took place in the Kingdom of Naples on September 13,1789. Vincenzo Lunardi, a scientist, flew on a hot-air balloon in the presence of Ferdinand IV and Marie Caroline. Even if this demonstration took place in Naples, the Associazione Culturale Rievocatori Fantasie d’Epoca (Cultural Association Reenactors of Vintage Fancies), together with the municipality of Fragneto Monforte, has decided to commemorate it in the Royal Park of Caserta for the beauty of the scenery. The dramatization starts at 11:00 a.m. Interviewing some members of the cultural association I notice how thet take care over studying the characters they have to interpret. I am lucky enough to witness a dramatization in the open air.

Lunardi prepares the hot-air balloon and then asks the king the permission to fly. Ferdinand IV answers: “We are used to seeing birds fly. May your demonstration be successful, unlike Icarus’ feat!” A courtier helps Lunardi to get into the basket and says: “May the Gods protect you in your feat!” Finally the scientist performs his demostration flight and, when he lands, he is greeted by a crowd of courtiers who await him with a bottle of sparkling wine. The actors drink and say : “Long live the king!”.

I can’t help smiling because I think that on that occasion Ferdinan IV was a mere spectator and he never flew on the balloon. But the crowd that watched the demonstration flight probably drank to a king who had no particular merit in that feat! This toast is full of joy and desire to enjoy life and have fun, the same joy I feel every time I visit the Royal Apartments and Park. I believe that every place absorbs the feelings of people who have lived in it.

Many tourists attend the hot air balloon flight demonstration, especially young children. And while actors are drinking a little girl – with naivety typical of that age  – stops the celebration by exclaming : “Hello, George Washington!”.

Copyright photos of the article and photo-gallery: Anna Visconti

Article written by: A. Visconti