7 settembre 2023
by Lidia Lombardi

The Shape of Water

La Reggia di Caserta 
La Reggia di Caserta 

"I've been six days on horseback, I've seen a lot of water, I shall report it to the king...." These were the words of Luigi Vanvitelli, architect, engineer, stage designer and painter, in April 1752. The king was Charles of Bourbon, the water was that intended to gush into the Royal Palace of Caserta, his masterpiece, whose foundation stone had been laid on January 20 the year before, in homage to the sovereign whose birthday was on that day.

Vanvitelli–a visionary, indefatigable, multifaceted, excellent draftsman who had been taught how to paint by his father Caspar van Wittel–is credited with the title “architect of water.” And this is, in addition to the inimitable “dancing” fountains of the Royal Palace of Caserta, also due to his other great feat: the urban planning of the port of Ancona, a city he wanted to be revealed from the sea. Thus, its entire layout is shown to converge towards the port of call on the Adriatic, and the most important building, the lazaretto–a colossal pentagonal structure–was placed on an artificial island of twenty thousand square meters leaning against the harbor: the Mole Vanvitelliana.

This year is the 250th anniversary of Vanvitelli’s death, which occurred in Caserta, on March 1, 1773, by which time Charles of Bourbon had left Naples for the throne of Spain and his successor, Ferdinand IV, lacked his charisma and enlightened vision (enlightenment, one might venture).  Events have been organized in celebration, strongly advocated by Tiziana Maffei, director of the Royal Palace of Caserta who fought for the bicentenary–and a half– to be recognized.

Vanvitelli's 250th anniversary marks the 250th anniversary of his death, which occurred in Caserta, Italy, on March 1, 1773, by which time Charles of Bourbon had left Naples for the Spanish throne and his successor, Ferdinand IV, lacked his charisma and enlightened vision

She was right, because the spotlight, turning on Vanvitelli, revives his genius figure, overshadowed by names that received greater acclaim: Palladio, Bernini, Borromini... And instead, you only have to scroll through the assignments completed by Vanvitelli to understand the magnitude of the "legacy of the Future" he left us, and how great a maestro he was, for Piermarini for example, for the architects of Buckingham Palace, for those of the city of Lisbon, and for the neoclassicists he inspired, despite his flashes of Baroque.

All this will be discussed at the international study conference to be held in Ancona–in the spaces of the Mole Vanvitelliana, and where else? –September 7-9. It was presented today at the Ministry of Culture by Undersecretary Vittorio Sgarbi, who praised the variety of the papers (more than eighty "abstracts" selected). These papers examine the architect's work and personality, from the great impact he had on travelers of the Grand Tour, to the renewal of building site practices (the Reggia, which was still unfinished when Luigi Vanvitelli died, is known as "the building site of building sites"), the rivalries and controversies he had to endure (in Rome he was opposed by Ferdinando Fuga, who also criticized his project to consolidate the dome of St. Peter's with iron rims, which eventually proved successful) and the financial restrictions he suffered (while he was building the Reggia, the secretary of state, Marquis Bernardo Tanucci, even skimped on his charcoal for heating).

We can also highlight Vanvitelli's ubiquity: in Milan, he was in charge of the restoration of the viceregal palace and contributed to the spread of neoclassicism in Lombardy;  in Rome, he began with the design of the Vermicino aqueduct, supervised the restoration of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the altar of Sant'Anna in Sant'Andrea delle Fratte, and the Augustinian convent, as well as participating in the competition for the Trevi Fountain; in Campania, in addition to the Royal Palace, he was awarded assignments in Ercolano, Naples, and Benevento. He was in charge of the Salt Flats of Margherita di Savoia. in Maddaloni, he left the engineering masterpiece, the Carolino Aqueduct, which from Mount Taburno helps channel water from the Fizzo springs to the Royal Palace of Caserta, where after a 38-kilometer journey it gushes into the Peschiera, the fountains of the Royal Park and the English Garden, and the Bourbon silkworks of San Leucio, all UNESCO World Heritage Sites;

in the Marche region, he produced numerous works, to the extent that they could constitute a substantial Vanvitellian tour of nature and architecture; back in Ancona, at the port, in addition to the Mole, there is the Clementine Arch, made of two materials, snow-white travertine and brick. In the town, there is the Church of Jesus, with its concave facade, echoing the curve of the harbor, and Palazzo Ferretti, proud of its grand staircase and roof garden.

Then Loreto, where he completed the loggia of the Apostolic Palace and designed the bell tower of the Basilica, made of brick and finished with stone from Istria, the tallest in the Marche region, standing 75.6 meters; in Macerata, we find more Rococo curves and classical severity in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Misericordia, and in the church of Santa Maddalena in Pesaro, the Torre Civica in Fano, the church of San Vito in Recanati and the Palazzo Albani in Urbino.

The human and artistic journey of Vanvitelli–who trained in Rome with Filippo Juvarra, an imaginative set designer as well as architect–is reconstructed by the permanent exhibition that opened in the Royal Palace of Caserta on March 1 this year, the start of the 250th anniversary celebrations.

Director Tiziana Maffei tells AGI: "Over the course of the year, visitors have increased by 20 percent and there has been a change in type of visitor. Many are foreigners, which provides a boost to local tourism. We prioritize knowledge of the places: the walk at dawn in the park and English Garden on August 26 attracted a thousand people, who were in line at the entrance from 5.15 am. For the immediate future, there is a call for the design of rooms that prepare visitors for the tour, extending knowledge to the role of Bourbons in Southern Italy. And at the end of the year, there will be two photographic exhibitions, one on Vanvitelli the architect and engineer by Luciano D'Inverno, the other on Vanvitelli's places in Italy by Luciano Romano.”

For the immediate future, in call for rooms that prepare for the visit, extending knowledge to the role of Bourbons in southern Italy. And at the end of the year, two photographic exhibitions, one on Vanvitelli the architect and engineer by Luciano D'Inverno, the other on Vanvitelli's places in Italy by Luciano Romano

Undersecretary Vittorio Sgarbi (who will close the Ancona conference, which will be opened by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano) summed up the classical-baroque diatribe that has often divided critics of Vanvitelli. “Certainly, the influence of another great classical architect like Palladio can be sensed in his work, but at the same time, there are also echoes of Baroque. In him, we see Palladio and we see Bernini, we see the image of a papal Rome that Vanvitelli brought to Ancona and the Marche.

An Ancona that he perceives as a second Venice because of its openness to the sea. A great artist who culminated in Caserta with a work worthy of Versailles. Vanvitelli was also a painter and the son of a great painter who placed the central importance of Rome at the heart of his work: in short, he translated painting into architecture.”

This great master's "future" is also in the relationship with the other side of the Adriatic. "The city he understands as the Gateway to the East seeks to unite our coast with the coast of Croatia,” notes the Councilor for Culture of Ancona, Anna Maria Bertini. The symbol he chose, the seashell, he donated to a church in the regional capital of the Marche. Form forged by Nature like a work of architecture.

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