King Charles of Bourbon was an enlightened sovereign who loved the people and art, and made Naples and Madrid two international capitals

The origins

Charles of Bourbon (Madrid, January 20, 1716 – Madrid, December 14, 1788)

On May 10, 1734, in the afternoon, Charles of Bourbon, having overcome the feeble resistance that the Austrians and the partisans of Charles VI had tried here and there in the realm, triumphantly entered Naples through Porta Capuana and amid the enthusiasm of the people he went to the Cathedral to make an act of devotion to S. Gennaro whose blood, a little while before, had performed the expected miracle. Thus after a long and painful interlude of over two centuries, during which the Spanish rulers first, then the Austrians, had oppressed the populations of southern Italy in every way, dried up the sources of its wealth, lowered to the rank of province what it had been one of the most prosperous and powerful kingdoms of the peninsula and for some time in Europe, Naples was once again the capital of an independent state, ruled by a very young monarch rich in good qualities and excellent intentions.

Charles, born in 1716 to Philip V king of Spain and his second wife, Elisabetta Farnese, could not aspire to the throne because there was an heir, son of his first wife Maria Luisa Gabriella of Savoy, Prince Ferdinand. Not bearing the thought that her son Charles should live in the shadow of his stepbrother, Queen Elizabeth, thanks to her intelligence, shrewdness and manipulative ability on all European courts, obtained for her son the first succession in the Farnese duchies and in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. , then, taking advantage of the rivalry that arose between France and Austria regarding Stanislao Leszczynski’s candidacy for the Polish throne, he also obtained the Kingdom of Naples.

Portrait of Elisabetta Farnese, Queen of Spain

The Kingdom of Naples

Charles of Bourbon, therefore, was eighteen when he wore “the most beautiful crown in Italy” (a sentence written in a letter by his mother). Of medium height, he had a lean and muscular body, clear eyes, very pronounced facial features. His education had not been the best, since the tutor Count of Santisteban, instead of preparing him for the care of the state, apparently preferred to cultivate his natural inclination for hunting, fishing and painting. Simple in features and affable, with a rather shy character, he was judged differently by those who approached him. But his biographers, even the less benevolent, agree in recognizing that in him the sum of moral merits was greater and more certain than that of defects and that his natural talent made up for the shortcomings of an imperfect education.

He had arrived in Italy just over fifteen as the heir of Gian-Gastone de ‘Medici and Antonio Farnese and had spent two years peacefully between Florence and Parma, despite the ire of the Emperor of Austria who had not bent to grant him the investiture of the two duchies. The war unleashed between the states of Europe at the end of 1733 gave him a larger kingdom and a more difficult task.

The founder of the dinasty of the Bourbon of Naples  will be remembered as the protector of the sciences and the arts and even more as a courageous reconstructor of the fortunes of his new homeland.

He had Italian blood in his veins (the evil ones whispered that this did not come only from his mother) and among his most listened to advisors was Bernardo Tanucci, a witty and cultured lawyer from Stia in the Casentino, former professor at the University of Pisa and Minister of Justice in the new Kingdom. Tanucci, a Tuscan temper of the great age, abhorred abstractions and disdained words and beautiful speeches, Fervid admirer of Machiavelli, tireless in his work, incorruptible and disinterested, nourished as he was by ancient wisdom and jealous of Italian glories, certainly cooperated to give substance to the grandiose plans that were maturing in the young King’s mind and to harmonize them with the needs and possibilities of the State.

Portrait of King Charles of Bourbon – Capodimonte Museum (Detail)

The excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii

Charles of Bourbonin 1738 ordered that the excavations of Herculaneum be resumed with more prudent systems than those used by the prince of Elbeuf, the lucky discoverer of the buried city, and with the intention of collecting the objects found: later he started those of Pompeii and the harvest it was so rich and abundant that it recommended the formation of a museum, which soon could compete with the most important in Europe, and the foundation of the Herculaneum Academy for the study of the archaeological material that had come to light.

Charles of Bourbon financed the start of the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii

The Farnese Collection

Another merit of the young king was the conservation of the rich art collections of the Farnese dynasty, which he brought from Parma to Naples together with the volumes of the Farnese collection, which formed the first nucleus of the royal library established in 1734, and also the purchase of several masterpieces from the Medici gallery, transported to Vienna to be sold to the public auction. These masterpieces of the Farnese were donated by the Bourbons to the city of Naples, and today they are divided between the Capodimonte Museum and the Archaeological Museum, and contain the most extraordinary statues of the Greek and Roman period, and the most beautiful paintings and works from the Middle Ages to Baroque.

The new Royal Palace, the Portici villa, the San Carlo Theater

He was responsible for the impetus given to city construction, so that the major centers of the realm, with the capital at the head, were soon transformed and enriched with new important buildings, in a joyful awakening of hopes, will and energies.

The first work he put his hand to as soon as he arrived in Naples was the enlargement and the layout of the royal palace which could not be either comfortable or worthy of the Court because it lacked even the most necessary furniture, so much was the abandonment in to which the viceroys had left him.

In 1737 he wanted to equip the capital with a large theater and entrusted its construction to the architect Medrano and the impresario Carasale who completed it with marvelous speed in eight months. This was the Teatro di S. Carlo which soon rose to high fame and which Giovanni Maria Bibiena and Ferdinando Fuga later worked on. In the summer of 1738, shortly after his marriage to Maria Amalia of Saxony, he also commissioned Medrano to build a large villa for him in Capodimonte “the most important in Europe”, whose work progressed slowly despite the architect’s call from Rome. Antonio Canevari for the revision of the project and the advice necessary for its execution. To the same Canevari he entrusted the design and construction of the villa of Portici, notable above all for the noble front facing the sea and for the large terraces that extend to the sides of the monumental staircase.

The Real Teatro San Carlo in Naples is not only the oldest theater in the world active since 1737 but, above all, it has revolutionized theatrical architecture by introducing the horseshoe shape and balconies.

The battle of Velletri

Meanwhile, every day the rivalries between the states of Europe became more acute, and Charles, foreseeing that he could not remain extraneous to the imminent war, had to prepare the means for the defense of the Kingdom. He reorganized the army, founded military academies, restored and armed the fortresses near the borders; so that when, under pressure from the Court of Madrid and the threat of Lobkowitz already marching with his army towards the kingdom, he was forced to abandon the neutrality observed up to then in the struggle for the succession of Charles VI, he was able to move against the Austrians at the head of his troops, stop them near Velletri and defeat them in a battle that marked the fate of the war in Italy.With the battle of Velletri, fought in August 1744, all hope fell for Maria Teresa of regaining southern Italy to the empire. ‘Italy, the Bourbon monarchy was consolidated and Charles had a victory which, if it was exaggeratedly exalted by his loyalists, in every way increased the admiration of his subjects and gave the people the feeling of a reborn prestige.

Camillo Guerra “The Victory of Charles of Bourbon at the Battle of Velletri” 1815-1840 – Visible in the Antechamber for the Untitled (known as the Hall of Alexander )


The audacious plan to build a new city of the Court, of the ministries and of the high institutions of culture and justice, far from the sea without being too far from Naples, from a vague desire became a firm resolution in the King after he had to submit to the impositions of the English fleet commanded by Commodore Marteen, which suddenly appeared on an August morning in 1742 in front of the capital, to obtain the neutrality of the government of the Two Sicilies in the war that broke out after the death of Charles VI. The site that best suited this purpose was a vast flat land at the foot of the Tifatini mountains, owned by the Acquaviva counts of Caserta (irreducible opponents of the Bourbons) already occupied since 1735 because, rich in woods and game, it offered the young monarch the opportunity to indulge in his favorite pastime.

Once the place had been chosen, it was advisable to find the architect capable of designing a noble building for the ordinary seat of the royal family and which, according to the King’s wishes, was also to contain a university for “the liberal arts, for the intellectual sciences and for the physical sciences”, a public library, all the dicasteries, the judiciary, a large theater, a seminary and a cathedral church. After hesitating between Salvi and Vanvitelli, Charles of Bourbon gave the job to the second, and, since the project prepared for him corresponded to his wishes, he asked and obtained from Pope Benedict XIV to hire Luigi Vanvitelli, architect of San Pietro, in his service.

All 1751 was used in studies and preparatory work. On January 20, 1752, the king celebrated the laying of the first stone of the palace in the presence of the papal nuncio, the foreign ambassadors, the high offices of the state and an innumerable crowd.

The First Stone Laying Ceremony in the Throne Room

Charles of Bourbon the "builder" King

But not even the works of a new and grandiose palace, despite being carried out with great speed, could not calm the passion of the builder King. At the same time, the architect Ferdinando Fuga had commissioned the Reale Albergo dei Poveri, a colossal building which, although only partially finished, still amazes today for the vastness of the concept and the severe composure of the architectural line; and in the meantime he proceeded to enlarge the port making it safer, to build the building of the Immacolatella, to trace new roads, while the rich gentlemen, carried away by this enthusiasm, enlarged and embellished their palaces, the piety of the citizens raised new churches, and on the riviera di levante, between Portici and Torre del Greco, there were about ten magnificent villas that were able to blend admirably with the landscape in a perfect harmony of lines, proportion and color.

The capital of the realm was on the way to becoming one of the most beautiful cities in Europe; life throbbed intensely there; Great hopes arose from the new traffic that was being attempted to connect with the East by means of rapid fortnightly communications services between Naples and Constantinople and thanks to the trade treaties stipulated with Turkey and Tripolitania.

Abdication to become King of Spain

In 1759, Charles of Bourbon, at the age of forty-three, abdicated in favor of his son Ferdinand to succeed on the throne of Spain, after his half-brother had died without heirs. On leaving Naples he recommended to all the Ministers to finish the factories he had begun and even far away he wanted to be always informed by his faithful Tanucci of the progress of the works that interested him almost as much as the education of the young King. King Charles, before moving to Spain, gave the Farnese Collection to the city of Naples.

The accusation made against Charles of Bourbon of having been a waste of public money seems to us unfair. He had inherited from his ancestor Louis XIV the taste for sumptuous buildings and from the Farnese the love for art. In Capodimonte he founded, in 1743, the ceramic factory, which soon rose to such great fame as to compete with the best in France and Saxony; he created the Academy of Drawing, where they taught the best Neapolitan artists and also some of the foreign artists who came to Naples in the second half of the century; he set up an Opificio delle Pietre Dure and a tapestry factory, employing the masters who had followed him from Florence; protected the silk factories in Calabria; he encouraged the crystal industry, which, however, had little luck. The documents of the Caserta Archive also speak of a majolica factory built in that city in 1753 from which objects that must have had a certain artistic value came out, because the payment notes recall services for desserts with statues, lilies and ornaments, salad bowls , trays with fruit and flowers, glove boxes, etc.

His enlightened patronage gave a powerful impulse to the figurative arts, to the applied ones, and especially to architecture and it is to him alone that the best artists of the time were entrusted with works of great quality, and if they did not lack the necessary means to realize them.

Cahrles sincerely loved his homeland: when he left he did not want to take anything with him, not even a ring that he had found in the excavations of Pompeii.

The memory of him, as well as the writings of historians, is given to the monuments he wanted to raise and above all to that superb Royal Palace of Caserta about which the princess of Gonzaga wrote to her husband around 1790:

“J’arrive de Caserta où j’ai promené tout la journée but curiosity: there is the Versailles des rois de Naples. Le palais serait digne des anciens maitres du monde. Vanvitelli qui en est l’architecte à été là le rivai de Michel Ange par la grandeur des idées et la noblesse du style “.

(“I come from Caserta where I go around all day to browse: it is the Versailles of the kings of Naples. The palace would be worthy of the ancient masters of the world. Vanvitelli who is the architect is the rival of Michelangelo for the greatness of ideas and nobility of style “.)

He died on December 14, 1788, in Madrid in Spain.

Antonio Joli “Charles III leaves the city and abdicates in favor of Ferdinand in 1759” (Prado Museum)

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The Royal Palace of Caserta is open every day, except Tuesdays, December 25th and January 1st. The Court Theater can only be visited on Saturdays and Sundays (10:00 – 13:00)

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ADDRESS: Piazza Carlo di Borbone, 81100 Caserta (CE)

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