But the Royal Palace of Caserta is in such a bad state, and suffers from such lax security, that local officials have called for the Italian army to be sent in to protect it.
Instead, it is losing visitors at an alarming rate, its statues and walls are covered in mildew, and cars regularly race up and down avenues that should be the preserve of pedestrians, cyclists, and families pushing strollers.
The sense of neglect was underlined over Easter when a group of teenagers was photographed stripped down to their shorts and splashing in a pool at the top of a huge ornamental waterfall that dominates the palace’s landscaped gardens.
The grounds of the palace were supposed to be closed to the public, but the youths – described as “a barbarian horde” by one Italian newspaper – managed to sneak in nonetheless and take advantage of spring sunshine to take a dip in the cascade.
The palace and estate now has such a security problem that troops should be called in to guard it, the mayor of the local town of Caserta said Monday. Pio Del Guadio wrote to Italy’s ministers for defense and home affairs calling for “urgent intervention” by the army.
The controversial proposal was rejected as overly alarmist by Giovanni Puglisi, the president of Italy’s commission for UNESCO sites. He said that “at most” the lax security around the palace required a beefed up police presence, rather than bringing in troops.
He also called for children in Italian schools to be taught “civic education” and a greater respect for the country’s heritage.
The sorry state of the palace is a potent emblem of the dysfunction that afflicts modern Italy and the country’s apparent inability to capitalize on its extraordinary cultural heritage, from Roman remains such as the Colosseum and Pompeii to Baroque churches and Renaissance monuments.
“The neglect of the Royal Palace of Caserta is the umpteenth sign of the growing disinterest of this country towards one of its main assets – its culture,” says Armando Cirillo, a spokesman on tourism for Italy’s biggest political bloc, the Democratic Party. “We need immediate intervention to safeguard its security and its value.”
The palace was built in the 18th century by the Bourbon rulers of what was then the Kingdom of Naples, who consciously set out to outdo the Palace of Versailles.
Now surrounded by the hard-scrabble, Mafia-ridden town of Caserta, north of Naples, it is one of the largest palaces in Europe, boasting more than 1,200 rooms.
The palace doubled for the Vatican in Angels & Demons, the film adaptation of one of Dan Brown’s best-selling thrillers. It also appeared in Mission: Impossible III, as well as two of the more recent Star Wars movies – standing in for the palace of Queen Amidala, played by Natalie Portman, on the planet Naboo.
Despite its cinematic appeal, the number of visitors has declined by around 50,000 a year for the last decade, with the palace now attracting an average of just 1,500 tourists per day.
Last month Lorenzo Ornaghi, the minister for culture, said the palace needed an injection of funds similar to that given to Pompeii, the ancient Roman city that was buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, south of Naples.
There was another blow to the sprawling royal palace a few days ago when thieves managed to access the roof and steal copper, estimated to be worth $100,000, from a lightning conductor.
The theft took place right under the noses of Carabinieri paramilitary police and the Italian Air Force, both of which have offices in the building. Heritage officials said they had no idea how the thieves managed to steal the valuable metal from such a high-profile location.
Alarm over the deteriorating state of the palace was last raised in October when chunks of masonry fell from a cornice, narrowly missing a group of tourists.