Art history professor conducts research at Caserta

Stephanie Swindle
July 14, 2016

Robin Thomas, professor of art history at Penn State, spent his sabbatical conducting research in the archives at the Royal Palace of Caserta in Naples, Italy, for his upcoming book about Bourbon palaces.

“The book will explore the broad cultural, political and economic currents that link the stories of the three palace built by King Charles of Bourbon ­at Caserta, Capodimonte and Portici,” he explained.

Thomas, who received his doctorate from Columbia University in New York in 2007, specializes in Baroque architectural history. His first book, "Architecture and Statecraft: Charles of Bourbon’s Naples," was published in 2013 by Penn State Press and addresses Bourbon building projects that remade the city into a modern capital. He has also written articles about the architect Luigi Vanvitelli as book collector and the Duca di Noja map of Naples. His upcoming project will emphasize the role that Caserta played in the economic and cultural revival of the kingdom. Linking its story to economic theorists of the time, he will show how it was a vital part of the royal government’s reform campaign.

“The palace was more than just a residence for the king. It was an economic engine for the area, employing hundreds, leading to artistic and technological advances.”

Having previously lived in Naples during his dissertation research and spending summers traveling, researching and serving as a teaching assistant for a study abroad program through Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (1998–2005), Thomas has enjoyed spending this year in residence in Naples.

“To spend time in the archives going through hundreds of documents that, bit by bit, provide the evidence upon which this book will be based is rewarding and necessary. Looking at the secondary texts, which were published at the time and are only available in Naples is equally significant. Most importantly, living and seeing as frequently as possible the buildings themselves and analyzing and studying them is the role of the architectural historian at the most essential level.”

Despite his daily commute and hours spent reading dispatches from the court to the building attendant (in Spanish) and the payments and financial records for the project, Thomas has also managed to enjoy some of the cultural aspects of living in Naples: attending operas, concerts and occasionally watching a Naples soccer game and enjoying a Neapolitan pizza.

“It’s been a great year!” Thomas said. “Studying architecture is different than studying painting. Buildings can’t come to us. Paintings can visit different places for exhibits where we can see them. Buildings are where they are, and we have to go to them, so it has been an excellent year for going and seeing them. And it is the 300th anniversary of the birth of the king who built the ones I am studying, so it is a nice time for it.”

  • A waterway runs down the main path of the gardens at the Royal Palace of Caserta.

    A waterway runs down the main path of the gardens at the Royal Palace of Caserta.

    IMAGE: Stephanie Swindle
  • The gardens of the Royal Palace at Caserta are immense and filled with water features.

    The gardens of the Royal Palace at Caserta are immense and filled with water features.

    IMAGE: Stephanie Swindle
  • Robin Thomas looks through royal correspondences in the archives at Caserta.

    Robin Thomas looks through royal correspondences in the archives at Caserta.

    IMAGE: Stephanie Swindle
  • Robin Thomas standing beside a row of books in the archive.

    Robin Thomas standing beside a row of books in the archive.

    IMAGE: Stephanie Swindle
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Last Updated July 28, 2017