Art History department head's new book examines Italian royal residences

Robin Thomas

Robin Thomas, head of Penn State's Department of Art History and professor of art history and architecture, has written a new book, “Palaces of Reason: The Royal Residences of Bourbon Naples,” to be published by Penn State University Press.

The book, which will be available on Nov. 28, discusses three royal residences outside Naples, Italy, in Capodimonte, Portici and Caserta, all built during the 18th century. In the book, Thomas discusses how the residences were influenced by enlightenment ideals.

“These buildings were far more than residences for the monarchs,” Thomas said. “They were designed to help reshape the economic and cultural fortunes of the realm.”

Some say that these royal residences were imitations of Versailles and the ideas of absolutism, but Thomas counters this by discussing how they helped the kingdom culturally, socially, economically and politically.

To research this work, Thomas traveled to Europe multiple times to fully immerse himself in the subject matter.

“I spent weeks in archives and repeatedly visited the buildings and examined the works of art that decorated them,” Thomas said. “These visits included climbing under the roofs and viewing the spaces that are usually off limits.”

In analyzing the history of these places, the book aims to make broader contributions to art and architectural history as well as 18th-century studies.

Thomas wrote daily for about a year while working on “Palaces of Reason: The Royal Residences of Bourbon Naples,” but the entire process took almost a decade to complete.

Thomas has been at Penn State since 2008. His expertise is in European architecture from the 1400s-1800s, palaces, 18th-century urbanism, slavery and architecture, architecture and music, and baroque art and architecture.

Schools and Departments: Department of Art History