reggia di caserta scalone d'onore

THE STAIRCASE OF HONOUR – In-depth analisys

Find out all about the Staircase of the Royal Palace of Caserta

The Staircase of Honour at the Royal Palace of Caserta is such a masterpiece of architecture and scenography, which became the role model of all the main following world staircases. As you climbing up in the large entry staircase, while you looking at the great marble lions, you will be impressed by the immensity of the great background wall with its three big statues of the Royal Majesty, Merit and Truth. Turn back and suddenly you will see the Staircase of Honour expanding into two huge and spectacular parallel staircases ending with a structure of arches and columns that resembles a temple. Only now you can admire the majesty of the Staircase of Honour , 32m high and 11,664m3 volume, that ends up with a dome that originally housed an invisible orchestra. This dome is “fake” indeed, because above it there is another one suspended from the roof truss via wooden tie rods. This dome is an extraordinary masterpiece of fantasy, art, technique and constructive audacity, and we can only imagine all the difficulties encountered and masterfully overcome by Vanvitelli.
While you will climb up via the side staircase you can admire all this, and so you will get into the large central vestibule, almost a temple, from which you can enter the Chapel and the Royal Apartments.
The magnificence of the Staircase of Honour, with its marbles, huge statues, elegant arches, the two huge stairs, is the most spectacular scenography of the 18th century.

INTRODUCTION

Vanvitelli, to don’t break the optical effect of the celebrated Telescope, placed the Staircase of Honour in the center of the palace on one of the sides of the vestibule. Here dominate the Hercules Farnese, which on one side hides the view of the entrance to the foyer of the Court Theater, on the other side it guards the entrance of the Staircase.

Walking up to the first steps, the Staircase of Honour appears immediately majestic and immersed in a quiet light, accentuated by the subtle ligh and shades effect of marbles and decorations. As you walk up the immense staircase, the vision becomes more and more complicated as you reach the upper landing with two marble lions, symbols of power and majesty, and in front of a large wall dominated by the immense statues of Merith, Royal Majesty and Truth. Turn yourself and you will notice that, what you thought was the end of the staircase, suddenly expands into other two huge and spectacular parallel stairs ending with a arched structure and columns resembling the shape of a temple. Only now you can admire all the majesty of the Staircase of Honour and notice above, at 42m high, a huge dome that overlooks it.

As you walk up you will be immersed in the light coming from the huge side windows (invisible before), and you will notice that the upper vestibule is very different from what you imagined, and when you enter it you will feel like being in a temple. Turn back and you will see the statue of Royal Majesty dominating the Staircase of Honour, of which you will never be able to perceive the exact size, and by looking up you will see the dome and its very special structure that once hosted the orchestra.

Now from the upper vestibule you will finally be able to enter to the Royal Apartments, and the Palatine Chapel.

THE ARCHITECTURAL STRUCTURE OF THE Staircase of Honour

How Vanvitelli succeed to make this masterpiece of architecture? In the Royal Palace of Caserta there are obvious references to his previous work, but no one ever came to such high levels of imagination, art and building technique, pictorial sensitivity, prospect virtuosity, boldness, and mathematical calculus. But if you look at his sketches for scenographies, and think about his father’s pictorial style, the famous painter Gaspar van Wittel, you no longer wonder about: on the one hand inherited his father’s style of large landscapes full of light and subtle color shades, and on the other hand, the Staircase of Honour seems to be the physical version of one of the Bibiena’s backdrops that marveled the theaters of Europe, but with the basic difference that the construction difficulties overtaken by Vanvitelli were very different from those faced from the theatrical scenographers, who had just to make a decorative effect viewed from a single point of view (the stalls), Vanvitelli had to create a huge and real architectural structure and with six points of view (lower vestibule, staircase, upper stairs, dome and view from the upper vestibule).

The Staircase of Honour of the Royal Palace of Caserta had a revolutionary influence on world architecture, so that today it is very easy to find its style in the innumerable entry stairs of the most beautiful world palaces and theaters.

Dimensions of the Staircase of Honour (Intended as a minimum):

  • 18x24m (lxp windows depth excluded);
  • Height at the first dome level: 27m;
  • Height at the second dome level: 32m;
  • Height at the dome strctures:: 38m;
  • Staircases width: the central one 8m, side ones 5m each;
  • Total volume excluding the upper vestibule at the first dome level: 11.664m3;
  • Upper vestibule: 27x27m.

A modern section

The original wood model made by Antonio Rosz.

THE CENTRAL STAIRCASE

The visual impact is immediate and flamboyant for anyone who, for the first time, walk through the telescope: the short starting staircase limited by two pillars of the vestibule, and overlaid by a large arch (which has the same slope of the staircase) inevitably induce you to walk up.

A modern plan and section

Now starts the perception game by Vanvitelli. Walking up to the Staircase of Honour (steps 8m wide and made of a single piece of Lumachella stone from Trapani), you will notice the marble side walls that, illuminated by the reflection of the invisible upper windows, give light to the staircase and at the same time bring us to look only upwards and never sideways. Following the decorative pattern of the side walls, you get the upper landing.

Initially it should be of the same width as like as other ramps, and also two lateral balustrades, but Vanvitelli decided to enlarge it and to remove the balustrade to increase monumentality. In fact, the steps are made of a single 8m wide slab, so there are no junctions to distract our attention.

THE FIRST LANDING

The upper rectangular landing is dominated on the sides by two marble lions meaning that, as deduced from Vanvitelli’s “Declaration of Drawings”, the strength of reason and weapons that assure the king of “ownership of his kingdoms”. The right lion is by Tommaso Solari, while the one on the left is by Paolo Persico. The lions besides having a symbolic and decorative function, they also have an extremely practical function for Vanvitelli: without them, walking up the stair, you can see the junction angle between the wall and the upper balustrade of the second staircase, ruining the surpriss effect so much sought.

One of the two lions

Views of the lion

The facade of the Staircase of Honour

At the end of the stairs there is the immense background wall. It is divided into three main sections dominated by three huge sculptures bordered by frames, and above three arched elements, two of them with false windows, and in the center a coffered semi-dome. Below the central statue there is a large door with on the sides two semi-pillars decorated with bas-relief trophies. Observing the central statue, you can notice behind an hall from which, through a circular ramp, the musicians climbed to the top of the staircase.

This is the only time that Vanvitelli gives to your sight to move freely, while usually in the Staircase of Honour every single movement of our sight is not spontaneous, but cleverly calculated by the Architect. This does not happen in other large European stairs such as the Palazzo Bianco in Genoa and the Würzburg Palace, where decorative abundance and the shape of the ramps disperse our attention.

It could also be added that Vanvitelli, probably, put the space behind Royal Majesty to distract us a moment, because this further increases the surprise effect when you turn back.

A modern section

THE STATUES

The three huge statues were added by Vanvitelli to intimidate the visitors. Excerpt taken from his Declaration of Drawings for the Royal Palace of Caserta:

Among the many subjects that could adapt to this project, these three were chosen because they seemed the most suitable.
There are two reasons why people usually ask for an audience with the King: one is to ask for protection, the other is to claim assignments. But since among those who go to complain sometimes there are also the slanderers, as those who have cheeky claims, so to keep them away from the ears of the Prince, since the beginning of the staircase they are warned to don’t come here to defame anyone, nor come to expect nothing if he himself has no merit, because the Majesty of the King, the fair discerner of the truth,and of the merit, will not let itself be enchanted by them.

The Vanvitelli’s original project required an inscription below each statue, but they were never added.

ON THE LEFT: “THE MERIT”

QUI GRAVIS ES MERITO GRAVIOR MERCEDE REDIBIS (greater is the merit, greater will be the reward)

Artist: Andrea Violani

The statue of Merit has the appearance of a young soldier from ancient Rome with a laurel wreath on his head, a traditional symbol of Roman origin used initially to celebrate military victories, and in later times to enhance intellectual excellence. It has a young appearance as Merit is always young until it is recognized, and which is obtained by serving the King, or in the civil and military fields. He has a book in his right hand (closed, because if you show off your merits, you take away their importance), and while your left hand is resting on a sword (but lined), with your right foot he is about to climb on a boulder because, as Vanvitelli wrote in his Declaration “to make oneself worthy it is necessary to overcome the harshness” (to have value one must face the difficulties).

AT THE CENTER: “THE ROYAL MAJESTY“

AD MAJESTATEM ACCEDENS PERPENDE QUID AFFERS (before approaching the Majesty think on what are you pretending)

Artist: Tommaso Solari

The imposing Royal Majesty, the largest of the three statues, is placed in the most majestic niche of the three to indicate the greater importance of the figure of the King. The statue surmounted by the shell, a classic symbol of Vanvitelli, is equipped with a royal cloak and crown. and she is seated on a lion which, in addition to being the logo of the Spanish royal coat of arms, is a symbol of power and clemency, virtues that belong to the King. To symbolize command, in her right hand she holds a scepter with an eye open to ” denote that he knows what he commands ”, while with the left he stops the lion to mean that the King blocks not only the small subjects but also the great ones.

ON THE RIGHT: “THE TRUTH”

VERA FERENS VENIAS LATURUS FALSA RECEDAS (come forward the true, hide the fibs, go away the falsities)

Artist: Gaetano Salomone

The Truth (imagined with one foot on the world and one finger pointing to the sun.

The Truth, represented by a woman dressed in an almost transparent toga, means that, as Vanvitelli himself says, “no matter how much she covers herself, she always shows the beauty of her nakedness”. In her right hand she raises a sun, and as it illuminates the universe, the Truth also illuminates invisible things. He also has the fingers of his left hand bent except the index with which he points to the sun, and his left foot resting on the world to indicate that truth always triumphs.

The lateral staircases

The side staircases, wide 5m are more limited width compared to the central staircase (8m). They lead us from the gallery to the upper octagonal vestibule (27x27m).
The ramps, despite their length, have a slope of only 15 °, reached by Vanvitelli through the insertion of their interruption elements (small landings and short steps), both to facilitate the ascent and not to get us used to it by reducing the threshold of attention, in order to increase the spectacularity of the staircase of honor. On the other hand, the primary function of this structure is to scenographically represent the grandeur and wealth of the sovereign, certainly not that of a “simple” staircase, for the purpose of which another 56 internal staircases were created, even two elevators (the Flying Chair, one of the first elevators in the world) and the never built helicoidal ramp behind the chapel

The dome of the Staircase of Honour

The light from the large side windows collects in the immense vault which in turn reflects it downwards. The vault was painted by Gerolamo Starace and represents “The Palace of Apollo”, and has a central oculus, as above it there is a space for the orchestra that played when the King climbed the Staircase of Honour .

The dome of Vanvitelli by night

The dome glimpsed from the upper vestibule

The space for choir and orchestra under the false vault.

The choice to create a double dome probably derives from the dome of Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, but above all from that of Les Invalides in Paris, where Mansart, as early as 1680, had developed the double dome model created in three caps. from Brunelleschi in Florence, up to that of San Pietro by Michelangelo. This model spread because:

  • it made it possible to better divide the interior space;
  • it allowed to increase the height and therefore make it visible from afar until it became a symbol;
  • the interspace between the two domes made it possible to hide the internal structures that support the domes.

Mansart applied the same principle for his dome, but added a totally frescoed intermediate cap, so that it can be seen through the oculus of the lower dome, achieving a highly successful scenographic effect, imitated several times in the years to come.

Vanvitelli’s choice therefore seems above all scenographic, as there is no other dome on the roof of the Palace other than the lantern of the third Vestibule, the latter then much reduced in the construction phase. In reality, the insertion of a double canopy also responds to architectural needs: without the central oculus, the enormous vault of over 480m2 at 30m high with its weight would have created an excessive push towards the side walls, and since there were no upper structures to “crush the edges” as in the case of the Court Theater, it would most likely collapse. By creating a central oculus, the weight of the dome and the thrust on the walls decrease, and since, most likely, the interior of this dome is made of light materials such as, for example, the pumice stone from the volcano Vesuvius, this makes us think to another famous dome with a central oculus, that of the Pantheon in Rome. (as the Pope’s architect, it is extremely likely that Vanvitelli studied the internal structure of the Pantheon). (NDR)

The design scheme of the dome

Detail of the structure that supports the vault.

The oculus has the shape of an equilateral oval surrounded by round arches (4 on the major sides, 3 on the minor ones), but observing the four corners it is nevertheless noted that the arch changes shape, becoming a cross vault section. To mask the joining of the vaults of the two arches, Vanvitelli had the frescoes painted in a round shape, which, therefore, did not only have a decorative function (Work by G. Starace and represented the four seasons). Vanvitelli once again reaffirms its basic principle: form and function.

The upper dome, on the other hand, has no central oculus. How is it possible? The genius of Vanvitelli has meant that this vault is not actually in masonry, but is “fake”. This “fake layer” is actually a countertop made by cabinetmakers led by Antonio Rosz (the artist who created the wooden models) and consists of a “canopy” glued to the ribs and suspended with wooden rods from the roof. An ingenious solution that solves both the problem of weight and that of having to decorate over 480m2 of ceiling without being able to rely on central supports.

This dome is an extraordinary masterpiece of imagination, art, technique and constructive audacity.

Video

Concert performed in the space provided for the orchestra in the Elliptical Vault of the Staircase of Honour

THE UPPER VESTIBULE OF THE Staircase of Honour

After the second staircase youenter into the vestibule, of similar appearance as like as a temple, and structurally similar to the one at the ground floor, but much more elegant and rich in ornaments.

The central part of the Vestibule

It is difficult to establish where the staircase ends and the upper vestibule begins, there are no doors or gates that clearly separate the external space (the telescope) from the interior of the palace. the upper vestibule can therefore be considered as the last portion of the external space before entering the royal apartments or the Palatine Chapel.

Perfectly octagonal in shape, it is surrounded by a portico, and this evokes late ancient architecture (for example the church of S. Costanza in Rome, the Palatine Chapel in Aachen) and medieval buildings, such as the Byzantine San Vitale in Ravenna, but above all it recalls the Venetian basilica of Santa Maria della Salute by B. Longhena. The octagonal structure made it possible to keep the central part free, and to distribute a category of people (court ladies, dignitaries, prelates, court staff, etc.) on each side of the portico that surrounds it, separating them from the pillars.

As can be seen from the project sketches, Vanvitelli attributed extreme importance to this barycentric space because:

  • It is the main passage node of the entire building;
  • It is the center of the building from which the two orthogonal arms that divide it branch off;
  • It should have supported a large dome with an octagonal base to be able to observe the new city of Caserta under construction from above, but also because it would have become the focal point of the building seen from the very long straight avenue that should have united the Royal Palace to Naples.

Structure

As previously mentioned, the upper vestibule has the same structure as the lower one, but is different in appearance. In fact, if you compare them by observing them from the landing of the central staircase, you can see that the lower one is immersed in the penumbra, with the mighty columns supporting the weight of the structures above. Looking up towards the upper vestibule, framed by a three-arched portico, a brighter space is revealed, elegant in the use of the Ionic order and polychrome marbles, and with the four twelve-meter high windows overlooking the four internal courtyards.

Marking the area of the upper vestibule several times in pen, Vanvitelli demonstrates how important it was for the project.

The modern relief superimposed on the Vanvitelli project. Note the large dome originally planned, but later replaced by a much smaller lantern.

Plan of the vault of the upper vestibule. Note that only the central part is made up of a perfect octagon, the external one is not in order to obtain square spaces in the area of the entrances to the Apartments and the Chapel.

The upper vestibule is divided on two different levels of height, with the central part raised and connected by seven steps. This in addition to having a functional and aesthetic function, has allowed Vanvitelli to reduce the inclination of the side ramps of the Staircase. Without these seven steps, unless the lateral ramps were inclined, or the height of the telescope was reduced (and therefore it would also have had to change the appearance of the external facades), it would also have had to reduce the height and proportion not only of the portico. but of the whole upper part of the staircase at the level of the windows and statues. A simple solution that demonstrates Vanvitelli’s genius and practical sense.

These seven steps invite you to an inevitable stop: here with a perfect synthesis of Utilitas and Venustas (Utility and Aesthetics, or Form and Function, the basic principle of good design), you will notice that of the eight sides of the porch that surrounds the central environment , four have a recessed circular ceiling, four have a cross vault, and it almost seems that the whole room is wrapped in the spiral of the great central dome. Positioning yourself in the center, you will notice that, on the contrary, it seems that the entire building expands from that point. It is in this precise point, in fact, from which it is possible to observe the Royal Majesty, from another side the succession of monumental halls, the Palatine Chapel but also to cast an oblique look at the large windows that overlook the four courtyards.

At the center of the Vestibule there are eight large trapezoidal Ionic pillars, equipped with six pilasters (flat columns) two marble columns with a brighter color, useful to make the pillar more slender and to emphasize the central environment, but also to direct the gaze towards the halls or towards the windows. The succession of columns and pillars that intersect with the arches and vaults, creating many points of perspective vanishing, is nothing other than the materialization of the Baroque theatrical scenography “view with multiple fires” by Bibiena, where the theatrical backdrop, in fact, has a perspective decoration with multiple vanishing points. This not only proves Vanvitelli’s past as a set designer, but also demonstrates his creativity and great practical sense.

The columns

The walls of the Staircase are marked by minimal protrusions and recesses, elegant decorations and Ionic semi-columns, and are covered with gray and pink marbles expertly arranged to create a subtle chiaroscuro effect. The Ionic half-columns have a giant order1, are flanked by pilasters2, and frame the window compartments. For greater precision it must be stated that it is partially incorrect to speak of semi-columns, as they are incorporated into the wall only by 1/4.

Slighter and more delicate than the previous Tuscan order of the lower vestibule, the Ionic one, despite not reaching a particular perfection, has the merit of being almost devoid of defects, as it is not too massive like the Doric order, nor too refined like the Corinthian.

Following the principles of Vitruvius and Vignola, to remedy the bad ionic base (the heavier elements that compose it are not placed at the bottom, but at the top, and this damages the solidity), Vanvitelli replaces it with the beautiful Attic base: two tori (discs) of different thickness connected by a scotland (recess), creating a magnificent effect, as it integrates solidity and beauty.

Instead of the flat Ionic capital he used the modern Ionic capital, which, having protruding volutes and a concave abacus, allowed it to stand out from the wall. The Ionic entablature is simple and elegant, and divided into three bands of different heights.

Lorem ipsum 

The modern Ionic capital. Taken from the Encyclopédie by Diderot and D’Alembert

The proportions of the individual elements are very close to the ionic order described by Palladio in which the column is 19 modules high and the entablature 4. In fact, in our case, the column is equal to 19.5 modules and the entablature always 4.

Vanvitelli had no second thoughts about the architectural order to choose: the Ionic order is used both in the drawings of the Declaration and in the execution. The proportions of the column remain roughly the same, what changes significantly is the entablature: in the project it is 2.5 modules high, in reality double.

In the Grand Staircase, taken as a whole, the use of the order is completely classic, as excluding the niche from the coffered vault that houses the central statue, there is no trace of details of Baroque derivation.

Vanvitelli, in general, confirms himself as a full exponent of neoclassicism, trying to use the classical orders according to ideal canons. The perfect correspondence in proportions to Vignola and Palladio are proof of this. The architect grants innovations or variations from the model in the Tuscan style, in search of an otherwise unobtainable momentum, and in the individual parts of the orders, in particular the bases and capitals: the first more rational and effective in giving the idea of valid support for the column, the latter, particularly in the composite, simpler and more elegant, in search of the sobriety that distinguishes his work in Caserta. The architect emerges from the research as a protagonist of his time who brought the Italian architecture of the eighteenth century from the Baroque to the Neoclassical.

  • 1 Giant order: when the height of the column is greater than that of a floor.
  • 2 Pilaster: semi-pillar protruding from a wall.

The analysis of proportions

The proportions of the individual elements are very close to the ionic order described by Palladio in which the column is 19 modules high and the entablature 4. In fact, in our case, the column is equal to 19.5 modules and the entablature always 4.

Vanvitelli had no second thoughts about the architectural order to choose: the Ionic order is used both in the drawings of the Declaration and in the execution. The proportions of the column remain roughly the same, what changes significantly is the entablature: in the project it is 2.5 modules high, in reality double.

In the Grand Staircase, taken as a whole, the use of the order is completely classic, as excluding the niche from the coffered vault that houses the central statue, there is no trace of details of Baroque derivation.

Vanvitelli, in general, confirms himself as a full exponent of neoclassicism, trying to use the classical orders according to ideal canons. The perfect correspondence in proportions to Vignola and Palladio are proof of this. The architect grants innovations or variations from the model in the Tuscan style, in search of an otherwise unobtainable momentum, and in the individual parts of the orders, in particular the bases and capitals: the first more rational and effective in giving the idea of valid support for the column, the latter, particularly in the composite, simpler and more elegant, in search of the sobriety that distinguishes his work in Caserta. The architect emerges from the research as a protagonist of his time who brought the Italian architecture of the eighteenth century from the Baroque to the Neoclassical.

  • 1 Giant order: when the height of the column is greater than that of a floor.
  • 2 Pilaster: half-pillar protruding from a wall.

THE CONTROL OF THE LIGHTS

In the Staircase of Honor there is an extraordinary lighting control. The windows are placed very high, and are of two types:

  • a row of smaller, barrel-shaped upper windows (two are painted, therefore fake);
  • a second row of rectangular shape and much larger dimensions.

Placing the windows at the top allows both to direct part of the light towards the vault of the staircase, which being mostly white: it reflects the light increasing the general brightness but also to illuminate the walls of the entrance staircase. Their location at the top, therefore, reveals their function as simple light sockets, but at the same time, considering that the Staircase is located inside the Palace, it makes it difficult for us to establish a certain visual relationship between the inside and the outside. . Considering also that the façade of the staircase resembles that of a building, and the great brightness makes the structure seem conceived as an “interior-exterior”. This is the scenographic art of Luigi Vanvitelli.
The depth of the window frames is 2.5m, useful for giving color and weight to the external light. As shown in the plans (see below), they do not have a rectangular shape, but a trapezoidal one. The large external windows did not correspond to the project of the windows of the Staircase, both in terms of location and size, so Vanvitelli, rather than altering the harmony of the Staircase, made the parapet oblique, in order both to make them appear larger, but also to direct the light towards the lower part of the staircase.

THE ORIGINAL PROJECT VS THE MODERN RELIEF

Below you will find 3 reliefs:

  • the first is a detail taken from the general plan (tables II, III, VIII);
  • the second from panel XI dedicated to the Staircase only;
  • the third is the survey carried out by prof. Cundari. The scarce congruence of the drawings of the Staircase between the various tables of the Declaration is due both to the fact that there were three editions of the same, also carried out by different engravers, and which show changes in progress.

Looking at the lower section (current), we notice that the upper section shows the presence of a balustrade on the sides of the central staircase, not present in the central section. It was never built.
The central ramp initially had the same width as the others, then to increase the monumentality it was enlarged by 3m by also removing the balustrade. Furthermore, Vanvitelli established that the step was made of a single piece of marble so as not to interrupt the monumental effect.

The left section and the central section show the lack of the double vault, but if the first shows exactly the final appearance, the second has obvious errors in the design. As for the part below the balustrade, the final aspect is given by the second section, while the first shows us the balustrade.

The comparison between the ancient section and the current one shows various differences:

  • the parapet of the windows is not inclined;
  • on the left is the statue of the Truth, then positioned on the right;
  • the upper part of the central niche is completely different. At the top it is the same as the side ones (now it is a hemisphere and coffered), above the statue there was first a pediment (equal to the external windows of the building), then it was made up of a decoration of still Baroque style and with a shell (almost a Vanvitelli logo). The shape of the niche was also changed;
  • the structure below the side staircase was totally changed.

GREAT WORLD STAIRCASES INSPIRED BY THE ONE AT CASERTA

The Staircase of the Royal Palaceas mentioned earlierhas influenced the structure of the world most beautiful staircasesIs easy to find its style (a central staircase splitting into two lateral staircases ending in a large tripartite wall). A simple web search with Google proves it.

Don't miss this!

Virtually visit the Staircase of Honor!

Since a century the Palace is used as a location for the cinema.

Unofficial Website of the Royal Palace of Caserta
Don`t copy text!
Scroll to Top