one name for three cities
Copyright video, photos and texts © 2020
Three cities in one. Over the centuries, Caserta has moved, transformed, multiplied and regenerated. And if in the world its name is undoubtedly combined with the magnificent Bourbon Palace, its other identities, overshadowed by the Vanvitelli’s masterpiece, are a reference of great interest. From the magnificent village of the most ancient city, the original Casa Hirta, safe in the hills for seven centuries, before becoming the Caserta Vecchia (the Old Caserta), supplanted in its main functions and abandoned by the vast majority of the inhabitants in favor of the new Caserta, corresponding to the actual administrative center, developed in the plain below. There, where, in the middle of the eighteenth century, took shape the wonderful royal palace wanted by Charles of Bourbon and worthy of a great European state. The innovation that marked for the Campania Felix the beginning of a new era of extraordinary enhancement of the territory, connoted by other new, demanding and enthusiastic challenges: from the Carolino Aqueduct to the model settlement of San Leucio, just three kilometers from Caserta, to the Reali Delizie (Royal Delights) surrounding the royal palace, such as the Reale Vaccheria (Royal Vaccheria) and beyond, with the agricultural estate of Carditello. An incredibile concentration of cultural attractors and environmental attractions of which the royal place is certainly the epicenter, but which is never ending in its rooms, among its pavilions, in its immense park.
The road opens into the woods,
among the fir trees rising towards the sky.
All uphill, to reach the hill over four hundred meters high, where the view opens up to the sea of the Gulf of Naples. In the Middle Ages they called it Casa Hirta, precisely to underline the hilly position of that hamlet which had been developing since the 9th century, in the middle of the Lombard period, around the castle, which was said to keep golden eggs in the dungeons. And it was the secured defense of the fortress which convinced the inhabitants escaped from Calatia to move there too, after the ancient city had suffered the outrage of destruction by the Saracens in 880.
The fortress was imposing, with its four watchtowers, its solid walls and the keep, thirty-two meters high, dominating, then as now, the panorama of the village. Where the narrow streets, the medieval portals, the stone of the edifices, the Gothic architectural elements are the distinctive characteristics of that period. The ideal setting for the novellas of the Decameron, chosen by Pasolini for its famous cinematographic work.
In the centre of Casa Hirta, which became Caserta and passed underNorman domination, already bishopric since the abandonment of Calatia, the new cathedral was wanted by the bishop Rainulfo. The works started in 1113 and continued for forty years, until 1153, when the consecration took place. There were other interventions, which enriched from an architectural point of view, the original structure or which, as in the Eighteenth century, modified it radically with heavy artistic losses. Already in the first version, che mother church of Caserta, dedicated to Saint Michael the archangel, was like a harmonious synthesis of Romanesque with influences from various parts of Italy, and Sicilian Arab-Norman, probably borrowed from Amalfi. With the 13th century alterations, the Gothic was also added. Then, in the 17th century, the irruption of the Baroque, which prevailed at the expense of a considerable part of the previous works, to be then sacrificed to the radical restoration which restored the Romanesque a century ago.
Made of Campania grey tuff with golden reflections, on the facade the three white marble gates stand out by contrast. The interior, with three naves, has a cross plan (the Tau) with a central nave characterised by a trussed ceiling and evidenced by eighteen cipollino marble columns with all different capitals which, according to legend, came to light in Calatia and transported to the new church by the fairies of the Tifatini Mountains. The columns support pointed arches. Like the one connecting the central nave to the transept with three cross-vaulted apses, with a dome with Arab elements similar to the homologous Cathedral of Salerno, Among the art works, there are the frescoes in the fourteenth-century chapel, the only one that survived the destruction caused by the Baroque reconversion, a wooden crucifix by an unknown artist on the central altar, a fifteenth-century fresco with the image of the Virgin and Child, and two funerary monuments inspired by Tino da Camaino’s works. Outside, on the right of the entrance, a magnificent bell tower from 1234 stands out against the sky with its thirty-two meters high.
At that time, under the Swabians and controlled by Riccardo Di Lauro, Caserta continued its expansion, which stopped with the advent of the Aragonese, when a persistent decline began, marked by a progressive depopulation already in the Sixteenth century, when Count Giulio Antonio Acquaviva left his residence in the upper town to move to the plain below, where the new Caserta was about to be born. While the one on the hills, about ten kilometers away, became Caserta Vecchia (the Old Caserta). Toponym with which it is identified today that its hamlet is appreciated again both for its position and for the beauty of the ancient settlement, proclaimed a national monument in 1960.
The big and fertile plain crossed by the Volturno
had already been chosen several times in Antiquity.
By the Osci and by the Etruscans, founders of the city of Calatia since the 8th century, and then by the Samnites to whom the tombs of the 5th century belong, which were found few decades ago under the Royal Palace. Subsequently, the Romans were not lacking, but when the city, together with Capua, allied with Hannibal, the punishment was implacable and the decline inevitable. The redemption came later, in the middle of the imperial age and for several centuries the settlement in the plain at the foot of the Tifatini Mountains flourished, while the life of its inhabitants flowed quietly. The advent of the Lombards in the 9th century, however, was not pacific. The new lord of Capua, Pando the Rapacious (Pandone il Rapace), attacked Calatia, expanding the population, which in part moved to the actual Caserta Vecchia, evidently pre existing and well protected by the hilly position. But it was on the plain that Pandone definitely affirmed his dominion, ratified with the construction of a tower in 863, which became the heart of the residential area of the Lombard period, grown up in the place which took the name of La Torre (The Tower).
From there, the new life of Caserta started when at the beginning of the Sixteenth century Count Giulio Antonio Acquaviva, whose family succeeded to the Della Rattas in the possession of La Torre and the surrounding areas, decided to transfer his residence from the hill town to the feud in the plain. Where the other inhabitants started to follow him, attracted by the new open opportunities, especially thanks to the large market happening that took place around the tower and which soon made the new reality famous throughout the district. To seal their choice, the Acquaviva family amplified the ancient tower, building a large and beautiful palace suitably fortified, which they also embellished with an important garden, which soon became a must-visit for travelers, particularly foreigners, passing thorough the new city.
The centre of that original structure of Renaissance Caserta continues to be the heart of the nowadays city. It has taken the name from the great architect of the third transformation of Caserta, Luigi Vanvitelli, the square which was anciently the market, whose vast area is today occupied by the municipal villa, adorned with a fountain, which also houses the monument to the father of the Royal Palace, work of the sculptor Onofrio Buccini from 1879. What remains of the Lombard tower overlook the square, in the north-western corner, and the adjoining Palazzo Acquaviva, which has kept its protagonist role of the city life like Palazzo della Prefettura. The Town Hall and the Bank of Italy are located in Piazza Vanvitelli, in confirming their initial sixteenth-century function
From Piazza Vanvitelli you can reach Corso Giannone, which is near the park of the Royal Palace and represents the starting point of the paths leading to the historic districts of the Bourbon Caserta: the Real Belvedere of San Leucio, nearly three kilometers away, the Reale Vaccheria, five kilometers away, up to the medieval village of Caserta Vecchia on the hill.
Always starting from Piazza Vanvitelli, through Via Pollio, on the right you reach Piazza Duomo, with the nineteenth century cathedral dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel like the one, considerably older, which is preserved in Caserta Vecchia. The new city Cathedral had as a very troubled genesis, which it has dragged for decades due to the vicissitudes linked to the design and construction of the edifice, but also to some historical events of the Kingdom of Naples. The work on the new temple started in 1783, when, having lost the the parish church of San Sebastiano due to a fire, the inhabitants of Caserta had to perform all the religious functions in the small fifteenth century church of the Annunziata. To get a new church they referred directly to the king, who solicited the local authorities to launch the work. The project was entrusted to the court architect Giovanni Patturelli, but it did not convince the clients, who asked for the intervention of the sovereign precisely on the eve of the Carbonari uprisings of 1820/21. It was only then that King Ferdinand decided that the little church of the Annunziata had to be demolished to make space for a cathedral and he entrusted the new project to Pietro Bianchi. On the 30th of May 1822, the first stone was laid and ten years later the new church with three naves was inaugurated, and was a resounding failure. A new architect was then called, but his work was rejected as well. Only in 1837 the architect Pietro Valente was in charge of the renovation of the Cathedral. He directed the Academy of Fine Arts, of which he revolutionised the pre existing structure, giving it a decidedly neoclassical imprint and calling the best artists of the moment to embellish it. They finally reached the inauguration of the Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel, in February 1842 and King Ferdinand II and Queen Maria Teresa also participated in the solemn ceremony. Over time, other minor interventions and other embellishments would follow, until the last intervention in 2014, which restored the basements, where crypts were created preserving the archaeologic finds found in the Caserta area and which house works by contemporary artists.
On the facade of the Cathedral there is the staircase in Bellona stone, which gives access to the three entrance portals to which correspond the three naves inside, separated by columns. The central nave is covered by a coffered ceiling decorated with stucco. Between the nave and the transept there is the Triumph of Saint Michael the Archangel over the evil by Luigi Taglialatela. The apse has frescoes depicting the Twelve Apostles and biblical episodes. Among the chapels, one is dedicated to Sant’Anna, patron saint of the city.
From Piazza Duomo, you enter in the long Via San Carlo, on which we see the eighteenth-century Paternò Palace, historic residence of the noble Sicilian family, famous for its areas finely frescoed. Always from Piazza Duomo you can, instead, continue the way in Via San Giovanni which leads to Corso Trieste, the main city street, connecting Caserta to its Royal Palace.
The first stretch of Corso Trieste ends in Piazza Dante, formerly Piazza dei Quattro Canti, referring to the four identical edifices, equipped with arcades, which represent its distinctive element. Continuing on corso Trieste, you get to Piazza Gramsci, where there are Giardini della Flora. At the entrance, the statue of the Agriculture remembers the historic vocation of Campania Felix. Few more steps and you are in the wonderful vastness of Piazza Carlo III, larger than Piazza San Pietro. There, the Royal Palace is ready to reveal its splendors.
Monumental complex of San Vitaliano
At that time it was known as Miliarum. An area of Campania Felix at the foot of Casa Hirta, in the plain, where the bishop Vitaliano of Capua chose to take refuge as a hermit in the 8th century.
There, in the district of Casola of the actual Caserta, an hermitage arose, which soon became a reference for numerous miracles attributed to the religious, already in the odor of sanctity. It was the future Saint who built the complex which would take his name. A narrow space, delimited by stone walls, still reachable today through a path along which you can see various chapels dedicated to the founder.
The church is a central and fundamental element, with a rectangular plan, made up of a large presbytery and a choir where, in a niche in the wall, a statue of the Saint is placed. Inside the sacred building, there is a small chapel whose stucco altar is surmounted by an image of the Madonna of the Rosary. Outside, there is a portico with three arches of which the central one leads into the entrance of the church, while the two side ones lead to the monks’ cells. A bell tower completes the structure, and participates in the overall aesthetic harmony of the hermitage.
Mentioned for the first time in a seal of 1113 in which the archbishop of Capua indicated to the new bishop Rainulfo the churches of his diocese, in 1700 the edifice is mentioned in another document as being in poor conditions and crumbling. It was only in 2001 that the works of restoration were launched, which have restored each element of the architectural complex to its original splendor. the restoration of the church's trussed roof, the elimination of all ornamental overlaps and the recovery of the walls are of particular value.