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If you have read
the item on the Albergo dei Poveri,
the mammoth Royal Poorhouse in Naples, you know that Charles
III of Bourbon thought big. Another one of
Charles’ grand projects—also unfinished— got far
enough, however, to wind up 250 years later on
UNESCO’s World Heritage list—to wit, the Bourbon Royal
Palace at Caserta and the adjacent San Leucio complex,
the first example in Europe of a created workers’
town, a utopian community. From the UNESCO
area around San Leucio came into the possession
of the Bourbons of Naples
in 1750 and was chosen to be part of Charles’ unusual
social experiment, the creation of a new town of San
Leucio centering around a silk factory housed in the
main building, the Belvedere, an ex-hunting lodge.
Acting on the advice of Bernardo
Tanucci, the minister of state of the kingdom,
Charles sent the youths of the area off to France to
learn the silk-making trade.
In the meantime, work went forward on the centerpiece of the whole area, the new Royal palace, meant to be the administrative hub of the new city (and, indeed, the entire Kingdom of Naples)—and a physical hub, as well, since the streets would radiate out as arteries for the new city. The construction of the palace was begun in 1752 under the keen eye of one of the greatest Italian architects of the century, Luigi Vanvitelli, who engraved the plans on 16 copper plates. Charles, however, abdicated to return to Spain in 1759, leaving the entire project in the hands of his dimwit son, Ferdinand; fortunately, Ferdinand was a minor and was guided for a number of years by Tanucci, his regent. Work on both Caserta and San Leucio went forward. Vanvitelli died in 1773; his son continued the work until 1780 when construction was halted. It wasn’t quite done, but what there was, was impressive, to say the least: a palace of some 1,200 rooms, two dozen state apartments, and a royal theater modeled after the San Carlo theater in Naples. A monumental avenue, 20 kilometers in length, which would have connected the palace to Naples, was never finished.
town, San Leucio, however, progressed.
In 1778, based on plans drawn up by architect Francesco Collecini,
the Royal Colony of San Leucio came into being. Later
statutes from 1789 legislated the existence of the
town: each family got a house within the colony;
mandatory schooling for both boys and girls was
instituted; silk workers put in 11-hour days (less
than the 14-hour day common in most places in Europe);
the houses within the colony had running water, and
health services were provided for the workers. Men and
women worked together and were treated equally.
Private property was abolished and workers put a
portion of their pay into a common fund to provide for
the needs of all, including the elderly and the sick.
The colony had an elected assembly. In short, it was
an attempt to put the philosophy of the Age of
Enlightenment into practice.
project—a utopian town of royal silk weavers
living in social harmony in the new city centered on
the new Royal Palace wherein resided the Platonic
benevolent monarch—never quite made it. Tanucci went
into severe eclipse once Charles’ wife, Caroline, got a place
on the council of state; there was a revolution in 1799, then a French invasion in 1806, then a
restoration in 1815, and so forth, into the new
century, leading up to the unification
Italy in 1861. Royal palaces of defunct
dynasties thereafter became quaint museums. The silk
factory, however, did survive long enough to produce
cloth and sails for an international market. San Leucio now
is home to a silk museum with some original old looms
and machinery restored and on display.
The social experiment of the workers’
commune, however, far from being quaint, invites
comparison with other later utopian communities of the
day. And in the post-Napoleonic Europe — after the
restoration of the traditional dynasties—the
egalitarian principles of the community no doubt
invited some nervousness, as well.
In World War II
the Caserta Palace was taken over (in late 1943) by
Fifth Army under the Command of Lt. General Mark Clark
and became the Allied Headquarters in Italy until
the end of
hostilities in May, 1945. It was here on April 29,
1944, that all Fascist Italian forces (of Mussolini’s
residual Italian Social Republic state) surrendered
and where, on May 1, 1945, all German forces in Italy
signed an unconditional surrender.
update added Mar 2009
The San Silvestro Woods:
The large wooded area on the hillside immediately adjacent to the grounds of the Caserta palace on the north was once part of the entire Bourbon holdings in the area. It is the area through which flowed the last stretch of the Carolino Aqueduct (for Charles III) built by Vanvitelli in order to provide water to the cascading fountains of the palace grounds. These grounds were a hunting preserve for the royal family; in the late 1790s, a royal hunting lodge was built on the grounds by Collecini, who had also planned the nearby San Leucio colony (above).
That area is now the site
of a 76-hectar "Oases" of the World Wildlife
Foundation (WWF), one of an increasing number of such
wildlife preserves in Italy. (76 hectars is about 188
acres, or, for you city-dwellers, a chunk of land
equal in area to about 14 football fields.) The WWF
came into possession of the land and opened it as a
nature preserve in 1993. Since then, the organization
has made considerable progress in restoring the
natural ecology of what had degraded terribly over
many decades. The WWF center in the Oasis is the
former Bourbon hunting lodge (photo, above).
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