Amongst Florentine hills lies the beautiful castle of Sammezzano, brought back to life on the screen in the fairy tales told by Matteo Garrone.
Nestled among the Florentine hills lies the beautiful castle of Sammezzano, brought back to life on the screen in the fairy tales told by Matteo Garrone. Not far from Florence there is an ancient architectural jewel with hints of the Middle East and countless colours. Protected by the Tuscan hills in central Italy, the castle of Sammezzano in Reggello (Florence) has remained empty, neglected, and exposed to vandalism and weathering for more than twenty years. The director of Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone, wanted it for his The Tale of Tales, which brings to the screen some fables in Neapolitan dialect from the 17th century collection, Pentamerone, by Giambattista Basile. Here are the fortunes and misfortunes of the castle of Sammezzano, a corner of the East in the heart of Tuscany.
A TROUBLED HISTORY
The stunning castle is located in Sammezzano, near Leccio, in the municipality of Reggello (Florence). Surrounded by a large park, it was originally built at the beginning of the 17th century by the will of the noble Spanish Ximenes d’Aragona family in a place with a centuries-old history, which has hosted important residences (for example, the place was home to Charlemagne in 780, and also became the property of the Gualtierotti, Altoviti and de ‘Medici families at different times). But it was only in the 19th century that the building took on the Arabic identity that has made it famous. It was Marquis Ferdinando Panciatichi Ximenes (1813-1897) – who had inherited the castle – who set out to redesign the building, creating this wonder by extending and transforming the existing building through nearly 40 years of work.
The main structure is an eclectic building in Moorish style, which was part of that typically 19th century phenomenon defined Orientalism, namely the artistic and stylistic movement that aimed at recovery and imitations of the visual arts, of applied arts and of oriental and Middle Eastern architecture. The beautiful castle is a prime example of architectural orientalism in Italy and, during the 1800s, experienced a period of great glory and fame (in 1878, it hosted King Umberto I of Italy) but thereafter, in the decades to come, was not properly cared for and valued. In fact, on the death of the Marquis at the end of the 19th century, a period of uncertainty about the fate of the castle opened up. With the arrival of the 20th century, the castle was plagued by misfortune and devastation: during the Second World War, in particular, the Germans looted the castle, pillaging especially from the park, which was richly decorated with statues and architectural pieces. After the war, the castle came back to life as a luxury hotel. Then, for many years, it was left without an owner, in a state of complete abandonment.
A KALEIDOSCOPIC LABYRINTH
The interior of the castle leaves one speechless: bricks, stuccoes, tiles and marbles – an explosion of colours and decorations that stretch out into every angle of the building. In these concatenated spaces one finds niches, corners, openings, capitals, arches, fan vaults and domes, and every room is different, there is no repetition. The style is typically Middle Eastern, evoking above all the forms and colours of Morocco.
All surfaces are covered with motifs and elements evocative of precious Middle Eastern and North African architecture. Floors, columns, ceilings: the abundance of colours, shapes and patterns is immeasurable, it spreads everywhere throughout the rooms of the castle of Sammezzano, inspired by the Alhambra in Granada. There are 365 rooms, one for each day of the year, and they have evocative names: Sala Bianca (White Room), Galleria (Gallery), Sala degli Specchi (Hall of Mirrors), Sala dei Pavoni (Peacock Room), Ottagono del Fumoir (Octagon of the Smoking Room), Sala dei Gigli (Lily Room), Sala delle Stalattiti (Hall of Stalactites), Sala degli Amanti (Lovers’ Room).
PLANTS OF THE WORLD
The castle is also special outside: it is surrounded by a huge park, one of the largest in Tuscany. Built in the mid 19the century, it was originally home to a large number of exotic and rare tree species, like Californian redwoods, but also furnishing and small architectural elements in Moorish style (a bridge, an artificial cave, pools, fountains). Only a small part of the botanical heritage of the original park is known to us, although recently the replanting of species envisaged in the original design has started (araucaria, thuja, palm, yucca, oak, Atlas cedar, Lebanese cedar, hackberry and many others). The park also boasts a number of records: in particular, there is a 46-metre high sequoia, the tallest tree in Tuscany and one of the highest in Italy.
THE CASTLE TODAY
After being a luxury hotel after the Second World War, the castle was sold at auction in 1999 to a British company, but nevertheless remained in a state of neglect for another twenty years. The company originally intended to build a large sports complex with adjoining golf course but, as a result of economic problems, the project was abandoned and the castle, in fact, forgotten. Only recently, in 2012, was hope rekindled that the castle would regain its lost splendour: in fact, a non-profit committee – the FPXA Committee named after Marquis Ximenes d’Aragona – was set up to promote and enhance the charming building, which by this time had become the property of Palmerstone Hotels & Resorts, which intends to turn it into a luxury sports village.
The castle is normally closed but a few times a year (usually in May-June and October), the Committee, in cooperation with local voluntary associations, organises openings of the castle with guided tours. For information and details, visit: www.sammezzano.org
At least for the time being, without having to leave for Tuscany, you can admire the breath-taking beauty of the castle in scenes from Tale of Tales, the new film by Matteo Garrone with Vincent Cassel and Salma Hayek.
Photo Credits: Dan Raven/Flickr