In the eighteenth century, the artistic talent of Luigi Vanvitelli established itself in Italy. Architect, painter and sculptor of the time, he managed to fascinate the world with his innovative art. Thanks to his ingenuity and irresistible talent, Vanvitelli marked the passage from the sumptuous Baroque to a new style, more sober and elegant but of a high artistic value, inspired by the model of ancient Greek-Roman civilizations: Neoclassicism.
Among his many Italian works, many of which were built in Naples, his hometown, stands out for its grandeur and ingenuity the spectacular Royal Palace of Caserta with its annexed Court Theatre and the articulated work of the Carolino Aqueduct for water supply.
Perhaps lesser known but no less important are other Neapolitan works such as the gorgeous Casina Vanvitelliana in Bacoli, Villa Campolieto in Ercolano, then the Foro Carolino in the heart of the Neapolitan city, the Church of San Marcellino e Festo and the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata Maggiore, as well as his contribution to the realization of the Royal Palace.
The versatility and ingenuity of Vanvitelli’s art
Luigi Vanvitelli was born on May 12, 1700 in Naples. His original name was Lodewijk van Wittel, son of the Neapolitan Anna Lorenzani and the Dutch Vedutist painter Gaspar van Wittel, nicknamed Vanvitelli. So where did his stage name come from? When he was entrusted with work on the Royal Palace building site by Duke Luigi Francesco de la Cerda, he began to be called Luigi.
A few years after his birth, the family moved to Rome where little Luigi grew up under the imprint of a Capitoline education and the classical influences of the ancient capital. Growing up, he worked alongside his father, learning many artistic techniques of painting and more. It was in Rome, in fact, that when he was only 15 years old he was noticed by the great baroque architect, Filippo Juvarra, who welcomed him as his disciple after seeing the mastery and graphic talent of some of his drawings.
Testimony of this are the lines written by Lione Pascoli, who tells thus:
“he praised them very much, and he showed to be amazed, that at a young age he worked as an expert. He exhorted him to persevere in the studies he had begun, telling him that he would have had better luck in these than in those of painting, because there were many painters who then practiced their art with fame, and rare were the architects”.
Later he became assistant architect at San Pietro in 1726. Already after a few years he began to work independently in Rome and Ancona, where he brought his artistic contribution with several works including: the great Lazzaretto of Ancona, built on an artificial island pentagonal he created, and the church of Jesus; in Rome the impressive restoration of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli and the Convent of the Augustinians as well as some other minor works such as the Vanvitelli Fountain erected near the port of Civitavecchia.
Criticized by many and appreciated by many others, his genius was noticed in 1751 by King Charles of Bourbon who called him back to Naples to commission an unparalleled work.
The Royal Palace of Caserta, Vanvitelli’s masterpiece
King Charles of Bourbon wanted to build in Naples a lavish palace that could equal the magnificence of the French Versailles and represent his family. An idea with high pretensions, which was fortunately entrusted to Vanvitelli. Without getting discouraged, he immediately moved to Caserta where, in a few years, he organized the project, the building site and a large number of workers who followed his instructions.
The work on the Royal Palace of Caserta was completed in 1845, after the death of Vanvitelli. His project, however, was fully realized. The Palace consists of two bodies of buildings intersected each other in a cross, with four large internal courtyards. The structure had more than a thousand rooms and bright windows framed by fluted pilasters.
The park where this magnificent palace stands extends for 3 kilometers, including 120 hectares of surface. On a main axis run two parallel paths interspersed with fountains and water features connecting a series of green spaces and groves such as the Bosco di San Silvestro in the style of the Italian Garden, to the hidden space of the English Garden on the edge of the park.
The Carolino Aqueduct
Contextually to the works for the Royal Palace of Caserta, Luigi Vanvitelli, started a long research work for the springs that would have made possible the inestimable water games of the monumental fountains that were part of the so-called “royal delights” of the park.
Given the geophysical conformation of the territory, however, Vanvitelli had to go far from Caserta, until he reached the Valley of the Plain of Montesarchio that extends between Benevento and Avellino. It was here, in fact, that the artist found the source of Fizzo, on Mount Taburno, which would have made possible the supply of water in the Caserta area thanks to the construction of an aqueduct, inspired by ancient Roman structures.
The works for Vanvitelli’s aqueduct, called Carolino Aqueduct, in honor of the king who commissioned the work, began in 1753.
The structure should have transported water through a series of channels for 38 kilometers, up to Caserta where it would have given life to the various waterfalls of the park. The work was completed in 1770 and allowed the construction not only of the Complex of San Leucio, later commissioned to a pupil of Vanvitelli, but also the development of small businesses by the people, such as the many mills that arose along the way.
The Court Theater
In 1756, Vanvitelli dedicated himself to the realization of another structure of the Royal Palace of Caserta, not present in his original project, the Court Theater, wanted by King Charles of Bourbon as a royal theater where the king and his guests could attend private theatrical performances. It was thus that he commissioned Vanvitelli to build this theater but based on the model of the San Carlo Theater in Naples. The horseshoe structure was necessary for a good propagation of sound from the stage to the spectators, while the five rows of boxes of which it was composed, were decorated with ornaments that recall the ruling house.
Vanvitelli’s other works in Naples and the surrounding area
The realization of the complex of the Royal Palace of Caserta, gave Vanvitelli so much magnificence, that he was commissioned countless other works throughout Italy, especially in Naples and its surroundings.
The Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata
After its original Angevin construction in the thirteenth century, the Basilica of Santissima Annunziata was almost razed to the ground by a fire in 1757. So the renovation work was entrusted to Luigi Vanvitelli. The artist was able to reuse the original spaces that resisted the devastating fire, such as the famous Carafa Chapel, using the Neoclassical style, also taken up by his son Charles who completed the work after the death of his father.
The interiors of the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata are defined by the Latin cross structure with a single nave and the lateral arrangement of six chapels interspersed with Corinthian columns placed by Carlo. Crossing the nave and observing with a critical eye, the structural similarity of the Palatine Chapel in the Royal Palace of Caserta is evident.
The Foro Carolino
In 1757, the Neapolitan people decided to dedicate to the sovereign Charles of Bourbon, a large square in the center of Naples. The widening of the current Piazza Dante, which is accessed then as now from Port’Alba, was called Foro Carolino, in honor of the king who had brought to Naples prosperity and beauty. The work could only be commissioned to the greatest architect of the time, Luigi Vanvitelli. Under his guidance, a large hemicycle of marble and piperno was built, in which twenty-six statues representing the virtues of the great king were displayed.
The Church of San Marcellino and Festo
Monumental structure of Naples is the Church of San Marcellino and Festo, which stands in the historic center. The admirable internal decorations of the walls in carved wood and polychrome marble, were designed by Luigi Vanvitelli in the eighteenth century who was commissioned to restore the structure of medieval origins. Two chapels located in the transept of the church and the view of the Oratory of the Scala Santa are also attributed to the architect.
The Casina Vanvitelliana
The transformation of the whole area surrounding the Fusaro lake, where today the Casina Vanvitelliana stands, dates back to 1752. The work was carried out by Luigi Vanvitelli who made the place a royal hunting and fishing reserve at the behest of the new king Ferdinand IV of Bourbon. Due to the sudden death of the architect, by then old, the work was completed by his son Carlo.
The last years of Vanvitelli
Towards the end of his echoing existence, Luigi Vanvitelli dedicated himself to the realization of some parts of Villa Campolieto in Caserta. By now tired, he then contributed to the preparation of the scenography for the wedding of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon between 1766 and 1768. Subsequently he retired in Caserta where he died in 1773 and where he is still buried in the Church of San Francesco di Paola.
Fundamental testimony that well describes the figure of Luigi Vanvitelli, is the biography “Vita dell’architetto Luigi Vanvitelli“, written by his grandson who was given the name of his grandfather. The latter describes him as follows: “Extremely industrious and an indefatigable draftsman, he brought together qualities that were often at odds with one another, quick wit and suffering study, lively spirit and obstinate effort. In the midst of so many occupations and such a rare glory, he was always human, moderate, pleasant, discreet with the workers, compassionate with the poor, courteous to all. […] A rare and imitable example of praiseworthy honesty, sweet manners, clear of envy, affable and sincere by nature he was desired by all, and he had many friends”.