It’s no overstatement to say that if the Sammezzano Castle stood somewhere other than in Italy, it would attract visitors from far and wide.
But it does stand in Italy, in the flourishing province of Florence – the municipality of Reggello, specifically. It is nestled in a thick wood, not far from the famous Abbey of Vallombrosa. Yet despite winning the Fondo Ambiente Italiano’s I Luoghi del Cuore competition in 2016 (and coming second place in 2020); despite illustrious committees like “FPXA” and “Save Sammezzano”, to which I owe most of the sources for this article; despite appeals from art historians and petitions brought to parliament; despite its appearance on the European list of “7 most endangered sites”, the castle somehow still lies in a state of semi-abandonment. Those who have managed to visit it on one of its rare open days are truly fortunate; for the most part, Sammezzano is closed to visitors and its future is anyone’s guess, given the torturous business affairs of its owners.
What are we talking about? Sammezzano Castle is a truly eclectic piece of architecture, with eastern touches. Just to give you an idea of what a marvel it is, it’s been compared to the much more famous Alhambra in Granada, Spain, and even to India’s Taj Mahal.
Pier Paolo Pasolini used the castle as a set on his Arabian Nights (1974); more recently, Matteo Garrone – director of masterpieces like The Embalmer and Dogman – used it for his Tale of Tales and The Tarot Deck (a short film shot for the launch of Dior’s 2021 collection). In newspapers across the world, articles wax lyrical about its beauty and ask how it can be possible that the castle and its park have been allowed to fall into such disrepair.
But what’s the history behind Sammezzano Castle, the visionary mind behind it too? A mind that belonged to the Marquis Ferdinando Panciatichi Ximenes of Aragon.
Historic documents confirm that a fortress had existed on the site, on classical ruins, since maybe as far back as Charlemagne in the ninth century AD. Until the 1600s, it belonged to the Medici family of Florence, but thereafter the Spanish Ximenes d’Aragona started to declare an interest. They got hold of Sammezzano, and later consolidated their foothold in Italy by marrying into the noble Pistoiese family of the Panciatichi. From then on, the seventeenth-century stronghold shed its medieval look and became more graceful, lithe, more “baroque” in style.
But it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, with the Marquis Ferdinando Panciatichi Ximenes, that Sammezzano entered the lofty strata of the most sublime, mysterious buildings in the world. A highly cultivated, witty, visionary individual, fascinated by faraway worlds and exotic cultures, Ferdinando had grown up among the shelves of the castle’s cornucopic library. As master of the house, he set about transforming the castle and park into a wondrous collage of eclectic, oriental styles. Stuccoes, engravings, extraordinary color schemes, porticoes, hypnotic archways, mysterious runes, trompe-d’æils and halls of mirrors, all together in one bizarre, brilliant work of art. The lucky visitor is normally struck dumb; their eyes almost pop out of their head.
The park too speaks of the man’s taste for the exotic and the eclectic, in its farrago of local and foreign plant species. It also contains one of the tallest sequoias in Italy, never mind the highest concentration in Europe of this magnificent tree.
Mutatis mutandis. A few decades after Ferdinano, Gabriele D’Annunzio would create his Vittoriale complex, an astonishing projection of his ego and his “inimitable life”, along the same guiding principles. But I would maintain that even this extravagance falls short of what the marquis made of Sammezzano.
In 1870 the marquis wrote some half-hidden Latin in one of the castle’s rooms: “Pudet dicere sed verum est publicani scorta – latrones et proxenetae italiam capiunt vorantque nec de hoc doleo sed quia mala – omnia nos meruisse censeo anno domini MDCCCLXX”.
In English: “I am ashamed to say it, but it is true: Italy is divided between the tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves and libertines, and it is their plaything. But it is not this in itself that I regret: it is the fact that we deserve the evils visited upon us. The year of our Lord 1870”.
It sounds almost like the song “Povera Patria”, recorded by Franco Battiato in 1991. Ferdinando died in 1897: now we are in 2021 and I’m ashamed to say that, for all the love I bear my homeland, things are far from being resolved. The castle is emblematic of that. Like sand running between fingers, we’ve let the dreams of the great visionary marquis slip through out hands.
But I don’t want to finish this article on a pessimistic note. I’m following the group Save Sammezzano and the work that they are doing, and I have no doubt that such tenacity, such grim determination and such love of art and history will be rewarded. One day, the Castle of Sammezzano will be returned to us, to the spirit of the marquis and to all Italy.