When construction began in 1738 on the palace that now houses one of Italy's largest and most artistically rich museums, King Carlo III envisaged no more than a hunting lodge. Seduced by plans for something far grander - and hard pushed to find space for the vast art collection he had inherited from his mother, Elisabetta Farnese - a monumental three-storey palazzo reale (royal palace) went up in the heart of a magnificent park covering seven sq km. Though it would be 100 years before the finishing touches were put to the building, the Farnese collection was installed by 1759; acquisitions by Carlo and later Bourbon monarchs enriched the gallery, and porcelain and weaponry were added in the late 19th century.
Over the years the palace acted as a repository for the royal collections, the main seat of the court, and a royal summer holiday home. Now an art museum with immense permanent collections, it's also the venue for internationally renowned exhibitions.
The main entrance is a regal affair. Cool, cavernous porticos on the ground floor hide bars and shops. The Farnese collection, along with the Bourbon collection, is upstairs, as are the smaller Borgia, porcelain and contemporary collections, and the armoury. There's information about the individual works of art (in English) in each room.
Italian art makes up the bulk of the Farnese collection. It starts in room 2 with groundbreaking portraits by Raphael and Titian. Umbrian and Tuscan schools are represented by Masaccio (the 15th century Crucifixion from a now-dismantled altarpiece in room 3 is one of the few additions to the collection since Unification in 1861). In room 5 you'll find a copy by Marcello Venusti of Michelangelo's original (uncensored) Last Judgment, and an early work by Botticelli, the Madonna with Child and Two Angels in room 6. The prime representatives of the 15th-century Veneto tradition are Andrea Mantegna's Portrait of Young Francesco Gonzaga (room 8) and St Euphemia (room 7) and Giovanni Bellini's Transfiguration (room 8); note the blend of religious mysticism and realistic rural Veneto setting.
Titian's masterpiece, Danaë, is in room 11. In it, Danaë, daughter of King Argos, is seduced by Jupiter in the form of golden rain; the courtesan who modelled for the painting was probably the lover of a Farnese cardinal. El Greco's El Soplon, a version of a work mentioned by Pliny, is in the same room.
Sixteenth- and 17th-century works from the Farnese family's former duchy in the Emilia region are plentiful. Works by Correggio include the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (1517) in room 12. Parmigianino's virginal Antea is also in room 12; Annibale Carracci's Mystic Marriage of St Catherine is in room 19, and his allegorical Hercules at the Crossroads is in room 20; Guido Reni's Atlanta and Hippomenes is in room 22. Not to be overlooked in this galaxy of Italian talent are Brueghel's two enigmatic pieces, The Parable of the Blind and The Misanthrope, both in room 17.
Also on the first floor are the royal apartments, including Queen Maria Amalia's boudoir (packed with Capodimonte porcelain), the magnificent ballroom, the dainty Pompeian drawing room, and a range of French furniture and paintings.
The second floor features works produced in Naples from the 13th to 19th centuries. All the greats are here, from Simone Martini's St Ludovic of Toulouse (room 65) to Caravaggio's Flagellation (room 78), which influenced generations of Neapolitan painters. Massimo Stanzione's Moses' Sacrifice is in room 89, his Madonna and Child in Room 93; Giuseppe Ribera's St Jerome and the Angel and the allegorical Drunken Silenus are in rooms 90 and 91; Pietro Cavallino's St Cecilia in Ecstasy is in room 94; Luca Giordano's Madonna of the Canopy is in room 103; and, in room 104, Francesco Solimena's Aeneas and Dido inspired his friend Alessandro Scarlatti to set the subject to music in 1696. A third-floor attic houses modern and contemporary paintings, including Warhol's Vesuvius. In rooms 106-111 there are three works by Artemesia Gentileschi, including Judith Beheading Holofernes.