Art and architecture within a stone’s throw from The | Mall
“I have always believed that it is an honest man’s duty to share with others the opinions he has formed from the various incidents of life, long years of study and his particular talents”
These are the words with which Marquis Ferdinando Panciatichi Ximenes of Aragon opens his most personal treaty on architecture, a prelude to the realization of the Sammezzano Castle, which embodies his vision of the East in the heart of Tuscany.
During what was a delicate period for Italy – in which the Great Duchy of Tuscany was being annexed to the Kingdom of Italy – the Marquis stood out as a man of many talents and with an eclectic personality. He was, among others, an architect, engineer, botanist and connoisseur of ancient languages, but also a man of great political clout and high principles. A man who never accepted compromise and defended his revolutionary ideas until the end, eventually distancing himself from a world that he felt he didn’t belong to and taking refuge in the Sammezzano estate on the hills overlooking the Arno valley, at a stone’s throw from where The | Mall now stands. The Marquis created an idiosyncratic world around him in the form of an oriental-looking castle with eclectic and imaginative furnishings, which always enchanted him, although he never travelled to the East. An architectural miracle that in spite of many difficulties still stands out as the expression of a free-thinking mind.
This oriental “miracle” was built between 1845 and 1855, giving shape to a complex décor inspired by various eastern styles but more specifically based on two unique architectural schools, the Arab-Maghreb or Moorish style – characterised by laces and white plaster recalling Granada’s Alhambra – and the Indian-Persian style, made with brightly coloured ceramics. The White Room, Peacock Room and Stalactite Corridor are a perfect reflection of these eclectic and imaginary visions. The rooms lie on the first floor of the castle and are communicating, so as to create a path resembling an Arab casbah or a Turkish-Ottoman harem. The overall layout of the rooms, just like the wall decorations and entrance portals, follow specific geometrical patterns that are rich in symbols, with circles, octagons and rectangular shapes embellished by multicoloured glass panes, columns and engravings. The building, also known as the Castle of Light because of the daylong coloured reflections, hides multiple meanings reportedly linked to esoteric and Masonic beliefs, although the theory has never been proven. Along the walls and under the arches and windows are inscriptions in Italian and Latin, often camouflaged among the ornaments and geometrical decorations that embellish the rooms. These sentences, or paraphrasing Dante Alighieri, these strange signs, express better than any other ornament the wish to establish a dialogue between the owner of the castle and its visitors. They are an invitation to find a hidden message, understand ideas and recognise a hidden legacy embedded in the patterns and colours.
In the Lovers Room, which owes its name to the inscriptions recounting stories of characters from Medieval epic novels, the most emblematic and essential sayings can be found, such as Est aliquid delirii in omni magno – There is something delirious in all great people. This is the adage that better conveys the idea that beauty can originate from courage alone. T
he marquis’ masterwork continues outdoors with a park of 370 acres interspersed with small buildings, perfectly blended into the surrounding forests. The park encircling the villa was designed by Panciatichi himself who drew inspiration from English gardens and added exotic and rare plant species such as the Giant Sequoia, making it unique in its genre.
The Sammezzano castle – currently closed to the public – leads us into a dystopian and marvellous journey towards the East, a world that reveals the creative mind of its designer. Thanks to the care and dedication of a committee set up to protect and safeguard the castle, which is nonetheless facing a slow and disastrous fate, visits to this masterpiece can still be booked. Hopefully in future this marvel will be saved and its value and beauty preserved, making it a reference point in this part of Italy and in the Arno valley.