Think Caserta, and you think High Baroque style, a desire to out-Versailles Versailles in terms of scale, magnificence and power-projection. It was an urge that in the 1750s drove Charles VII to commission Luigi Vanvitelli to design a 1,200 room palace in Campania. The gardens were similarly vast – a long axis draws the eye to the distant horizon where cascades and fountains very nearly come into focus. However, just as the house and gardens neared completion, a sea-change occurred in garden style. Taste had moved on and Charles’s son, Ferdinand IV and his wife Marie Caroline now looked to English fashion for inspiration.
There really couldn’t be a stronger contrast between the old and the new gardens. A 50 acre plot was prepared and on the advice of His Britannic Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary, William Hamilton, a plantsman-designer called John Andreas Graefer was engaged to create an ‘English Garden’. He began work in 1786, collaborating with Vanvitelli’s son, Carlo. The result is something like an English country park with trees and grass, seeded with architectural elements to delight, surprise or thrill the beholder. But unlike its northern model, Caserta has exotic plants and trees clustering round the little lake and the created false ‘Roman ruins’.
This is a magnificent example of the Picturesque taste as it settled into the Romantic style – a world where imagination and emotions are just as important as reason. This is a garden about sudden revelations and sudden surges of feeling. And nothing embodies this quite so well as ‘Venus Bathing’, where the nude goddess may be seen from the front across water, chastely guarding her charms.
However, if you walk through a passageway cut into rock and glimpse her as if from a secret hiding place, her form is rather more thrillingly revealed.