By: Jerry Finzi, Grand Voyage Italy
There was a time when this magical place was going to ruin. Then, a group of volunteers banded together to look after its beauty. Recently, it was put up for sale and bought with an uncertain future…Will the public ever again be able to share in this amazing piece of architecture?
Of course, we’re talking about Castello di Sammezzano, the Moorish Revival castle in Leccio, a 45-minute drive from Florence and not too far from the local Mall Firenze.
The foundations of Sammezzano date back to the Romans, and in the Middle Ages, it was a defensive fortress–its most famous visitor being Charlemagne. Later on, its owners included such noble families as the Gaultierotti, the Altoviti and even the Medici.
Around 1600, it was bought by the Spanish nobleman Sebastiano Ximenes of Aragon and remained in the family until 1816, when it passed into the Panciatichi family via the wife of the last Ximenes d’Aragona.
Two generations later, it became the property of the man who changed its destiny: the Marquis Ferdinando Panciatichi Ximenes d’Aragona.
Between 1842 and 1890, Ferdinando completely reshaped the medieval castle into an Orientalist palace in line with the fashion of the time, particularly in Florence. The result is a stunning mix of the Moorish with the Byzantine, the Indian with the Chinese. Using entirely local craftsmen, he had all the bricks, tiles and friezes made under his supervision on site.
It’s almost inconceivable that this palazzo has 365 rooms–one for every day of the year–each with its own name and unique style and decor. The more famous rooms are the Peacock Room with colorful geometric designs, the White Room with its Moroccan mosaic tiled floors, the Hall or Mirrors and the octagon Smoking Room.
In the Great White Rotunda there is a glass dome surrounded by a balcony, and the shields that adorn the base of the dome bear inscriptions: Fortitudo, Elementia, Temperantia, Pax, Prudentia, Justitia, and Libertas. There is even a small chapel in the palazzo.
It would seem that the Marquis used just about every type of architectural element to enhance his creation: hidden niches, corners, friezes, windows, columns, labyrinths, capitals, arches, vaults and domes.
Above an archway are the words “Non Plus Ultra” in Latin meaning “no more beyond,” which is said to have been inscribed on the Pillars of Hercules (nowadays known as the Strait of Gibralter), in part as a warning to sailors not to travel beyond the edge of the known world. Some think that Marquis meant to take his visitors beyond the beauty of the known world when they entered his home.
But perhaps, the meaning aligns with how the ancient Romans used it, in this case, the highest level that could be attained or the highest degree of a quality. This is, after all, what becomes evident to any visitor to Sammezzano. The quality of all the details are absolutely astounding. The beauty of the palazzo was even enough to entice Umberto I, King of Italy, into visiting Ximenes at Sammezzano in 1878.
The castle is situated on the top of Tuscan hill, surrounded by 450 acres of forest with many hiking trails and dirt roads approaching from all sides. Originally the grounds included a bridge, an artificial cave with a statue of Venus, pools and fountains, but many of these were looted during the Second World War. Among the unique trees planted by the Marquis were 57 Giant Sequoias imported from California. These are some of the tallest in Italy, all measuring over 115 feet tall.
After WWII, Sammezzano became a luxury hotel with apartments, spa, golf and country club until it closed in 1990. In 1999 it was bought by a British investor, and some stabilization and restoration work was done. It was then abandoned and closed to the public.
In April 2012 a local non-profit committee called FPXA 1813-2013 (an acronym for Ferdinand Panciatichi Ximenes d’Aragon) was formed to attempt to restore and preserve the palazzo. Then came the auctions…three of them to date.
Movimento Save Sammezzano was a group dedicated to finding an owner who would restore and honor the castle. Appreciating the architecture and uniqueness, in 2018 a Dubai-based company placed an offer of $18.1 million on the third auction and became the current owner.