THIS OLD HOUSE
The 365-Room Fixer-Upper of Your Dreams—Cheap!
Bejeweled rooms for each day of the year—even if there’s no running water. Can an auction of Italy’s Sammezzano Castle save an eccentric nobleman’s wild vision that’s gone to shambles?
When 19th-century nobleman and marquis Ferdinando Panciatichi Ximenes of Aragon left Florentine politics in the late 1860s, he did so with a letter in Latin that read: Pudet dicere sed verum est publicani scorta—latrones et proxenetae italiam capiunt vorantque nec de hoc doleo sed quia—“I’m ashamed to say it but it’s true that debt collectors, prostitutes, thieves, and brokers have taken and devoured Italy… I am sorry, but we deserve our ills.”
Not much may have changed in modern-day Italian politics—Rome’s mayor recently was forced to resign for what roughly boiled down to the same reasons. But upon Ferdinando’s resignation, the eccentric genius escaped to his noble family’s palatial 365-room Sammezzano Castle set in the Florentine foothills. He spent the next three decades there designing and decorating the bare walls with the most whimsical of Arab, Indian, Persian, Spanish, and Byzantine features anywhere in Italy, which he dreamed up from his imagination because he had never actually visited any of the places that inspired his Orientalist tastes. He incidentally also engraved the Latin text of his resignation letter on the gilded wall of the so-called Stalactite Room in the castle.
Ferdinando’s bizarre castle and its 160-acre grounds, which have been left to ruin for the last several decades amid a grove of trees that butts up against an outlet-mall parking lot, will be auctioned off at a starting price of just €20 million (about $22 million) on Tuesday in an attempt to save the estate from private investors who are angling to turn it into a luxury resort if the price falls low enough.
A committee called Save Sammezzano is hoping to crowdfund the purchase with the dream of turning Ferdinando’s masterpiece into a public museum. The castle was put on the block on Oct. 20 at a starting price of €22.2 million—which attracted exactly zero bids, thus the €2 million discount for this week’s auction. “Despite its incomparable artistic and historical value, the Sammezzano Castle continues to be an ‘invisible’ place, a monument to the unknown world and virtually inaccessible,” says Francesco Esposito, who started a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise €40 million to buy and renovate the massive fixer-upper ahead of the auction, but failed to come close to his goal. “It is a monument that seems to be subject to an absurd, timeless curse.”
Indeed, it seems the castle, though not haunted, is somewhat unlucky. The structure is owned by an Italian-English company called Sammezzano Castle SrL, which had planned to turn it into a Palmerston Hotel with “a luxurious sporting resort, incorporating a boutique hotel, apartments, spa, and country club with golf, tennis, and various sporting amenities,” according to their website. Those plans, which were to have begun in 2014, fell through due to a combination of lumbering bureaucracy and the lingering economic crisis.
The extensive hilltop grounds, complete with artificial caves and manmade lakes, were stripped of their magical fountains and statues by German looters during World War II. There’s also no electricity or running water after the well ran dry, which apparently caused the failure of a smaller-scale hotel that operated in a portion of the castle from the post-war era to 1990. The hotel, which was only accessible by a mile-long uphill rustic trail, had few rooms and amenities, though was reportedly a haven for illicit gambling and prostitution of the type Ferdinando despised. It has been in a ruinous state since then.
The extravagant castle shell was built by the Spaniards in 1605 for the Ximenes (also called Jiménez) Dynasty of Aragon and later inherited by a related Italian noble family to which Ferdinando belonged. He used his wild imagination to create bejeweled themed rooms entirely from local precious stones and marble that was cut on site, making each of the 365 rooms unique for each day of the year. Each has a singular name, too—catalogued by a society in Ferdinando’s honor that manages the property and opens it by special appointment for a hefty donation that helps pay the property taxes.
Aside from being certifiably eccentric and never graduating from university, Ferdinando was an architect, engineer, and botanist, and the first to import sequoia trees to Tuscany, eventually planting more than 200 to earn it the nickname “Little California.” He cultivated more than 135 varieties of exotic plants, many which have been left to grow wild, sprawling over the unkempt grounds. He was also an aficionado who assisted with the local Dante Society, according to his biography on the Sammezzano Foundation website, which says he was described as “strange” and “was often mocked” by his contemporaries.
A recent video of the castle shows some of its magnificent rooms, including the entrance dubbed the Lily Room, which is decorated like a colorful field of flowers. A Peacock Room has long rows of colorful tiles that look like the bird’s tails extending above the rounded arches. The White Room boasts an opaque dome with blue precious and painted stones that looks like an elaborately iced wedding cake, while the Hall of Gilded Stucco glimmers from the reflection of sunlight through carefully cut windows in the domed roof. Ferdinando, in his self-imposed exile, had Latin phrases like non plus ultra (which means “nothing beyond” and was used in Greek mythology to warn of the edge of the flat world) and Spanish sayings like Nos contra Todos—Todos contra Nos (us against all; all against us).
If the castle sells to a private investor, locals vow to demand that at least part of the palatial grounds be finally opened to the public. In the likely chance that no one bids on it again, it will continue to fall to further ruin and remain one of Italy’s best-kept, still-kept secrets.