Arts & Tradition

The Most Majestic Theater in the World: Teatro di San Carlo

Larger than life: Art that inspires us through the ages
BY James Howard Smith TIMEFebruary 7, 2022 PRINT

With the Amalfi Coast and Pompei as neighbors and the Isle of Capri and Sicily close by, Naples lies at the heart of southern Italy. Historically, it was the gateway to Rome and the north. It was here that the Teatro di San Carlo (Theater of San Carlo) was born and grew to become the cultural heart and symbolic monument of Italy’s third-largest city.

The theater was the inspiration of King Charles III of Spain, who presided over Sicily and Naples in the 18th century. He entrusted architect and Spanish Col. Brig. Giovanni Antonio Medrano with the design. The architectural feat in the neoclassical style was completed in 1737 and restored in 1816 by the Royal House’s architect and set designer Antonio Niccolini after a fire destroyed a large part of it. It stands today as the world’s oldest continuously active venue for opera.

The building presents an austere façade. White Ionic columns with gold ornament establish a rhythm across the upper portions and announce Apollo and the muses of the arts atop. At street level, the robust exterior is made of a dramatic dark stone base with arched openings that provide passage through to a contrasting light marble foyer.

The monotone foyer of white marble and subtle reliefs establishes a calm setting that serves to highlight the patrons’ evening dress. Then, when stepping into the theater, one enters an otherworldly realm of wonderment.

“The first impression is that you have been transported to the palace of an oriental emperor. Your eyes are dazzled, your soul enraptured,” the French writer Stendhal said in his “Rome, Naples and Florence.”

On the ceiling painting, Apollo appears in the heavens introducing the world’s greatest poets to Minerva. The poets bless the theater patrons with their divine cultural offerings.

Such beauty draws one out from the thoughts of everyday life to explore the exquisite glowing theater. As one’s eyes wander over the tiers of ornate balconies, one is immersed in a vibrant luminance of gold leaf, red velvet, and the sea of patrons equally ornate in their refined couture.

As one’s eyes settle on the elaborately ornamented proscenium (the stage opening), and the lights go out, the curtains part, and the theater fades from sight, its beauty becomes a prelude, and the stage is set for the main event.

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The façade of Teatro di San Carlo, as seen from a neighboring building. (Luciano Romano/Teatro di San Carlo)
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The foyer on one of the upper levels with luminous chandeliers and soft coloring has an airy atmosphere. (Luciano Romano/Teatro di San Carlo)
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A view from within one of the boxes. (Luciano Romano/Teatro di San Carlo)
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Globe candelabras illuminate the gold-leafed cherubs depicted on the paneling. (Luciano Romano/Teatro di San Carlo)
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The ceiling fresco invites guests to enter a heavenly realm. The center of the ceiling is decorated with a painting by Antonio, Giuseppe, and Giovanni Cammarano, “Apollo Introducing the Greatest Poets in the World to Minerva.” (Luciano Romano/Teatro di San Carlo)
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The royal box holds a key position and extends over two levels of the auditorium. Exotic palms support the box and the royal crown forms its canopy. (Luciano Romano/Teatro di San Carlo)
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Angels fly with wreaths and hold open drapery to reveal those in the royal box to the patrons in the auditorium. (Luciano Romano/Teatro di San Carlo)
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The Royal Box is centrally positioned, offering a prime view of the stage. The sculpted gold and red drapery frame the view from within. (Luciano Romano/Teatro di San Carlo)
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At the center of the proscenium arch, a whimsical scene plays out where, in gold, maidens of music and dance are afloat on clouds. Above them, angels sound trumpets to present the royal emblem. (Luciano Romano/Teatro di San Carlo)
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The lights fade, all is dark, the curtain rises and the show begins. The light from the stage gently illuminates the proscenium and the gold-leaf decoration around the theater. (Luciano Romano/Teatro di San Carlo)
James Howard Smith, an architectural photographer, designer, and founder of Cartio, aims to inspire an appreciation of classic architecture.
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