Tucked away in the Tuscan hills of Italy is a 365-room Moorish castle built in 1600 and one of the most fascinating periods in modern history played out within its walls.
Welcome to the majestic Sammezzano Castle! Located near the city of Florence, it was truly a place for total escape, echoed by the Latin inscription "Non plus ultra" ("No more beyond") placed above an archway. Commissioned by an Italian marquis who inherited the estate in 1816, the words perhaps communicate his intention to transport visitors past the beauty of the known world.
Some of the most breathtaking rooms of the castle are the Room of the Peacocks, the White Room, the Room of the Lilies, the Room of the Mirrors, the Smoking Room, the Room of the Lovers, and a small chapel. The fairy tale castle was featured in the 1974 adventure movie "Arabian Nights," as well as the drama "Quiet Days in Clichy," filmed in 1990, and the 2015 film "Tale of Tales," to name a few.
However, the castle's centuries-old history is also as intriguing as its architectural glory.
Sammezzano, whose foundations date back to Roman times, was owned by the Ximenes d’Aragona family at the start of the 17th century and had many noble residents, according to the Italian-American organization Italian Sons & Daughters of America. But none were more passionately flamboyant than the Marquis Ferdinando Panciatichi Ximenes d’Aragona, who later inherited the castle.
Ferdinando, as he is better known, was obsessed with Orientalism, which was fashionable in Europe during the 19th century, leading him to embark on a grand new vision for his property.
Between the years of 1843 and 1889, the Italian nobleman completely rebuilt the palace originally shaped by his ancestor Ximenes of Aragon back in 1605.
Over the course of four decades, Ferdinando hired local craftsmen to create a richly colored palazzo complete with a stunning array of architectural elements including columns, friezes, labyrinths, arches, vaults, and domes. The result was something akin to an Egyptian palace crossed with Granada’s Alhambra and the kasbah of Marrakesh, or a mini-Taj Mahal of India.
A pure Oriental fantasy, the castle alone covers more than 170,000 square meters (approx. 42 acres); the lavish 160-acre landscaped grounds surrounding it contain not only strange plants, ornamental ponds, caves, and fountains, but also huge, centuries-old redwoods—the largest collection of such trees in Italy.
It’s easy to see how visitors to Sammezzano would feel transported to another world.
In the 1930s, Sammezzano Castle was in the hands of an owner who had been convicted of "fraudulent bankruptcy," according to Metro.co.uk. After World War II, it was then sold and started a new incarnation as a luxurious hotel: a place where battle-worn Italians could enjoy peace, tranquility, and a booming social scene.
The sprawling, fairytale castle was the perfect setting for a much-needed dose of post-war hedonism. After the hardships of the preceding six years, consumers craved comfort, and Sammezzano delivered it in spades. However, the decades to come were not without turbulence, and Sammezzano’s new golden age couldn’t last forever.
The hotel was again shuttered in the 1980s and, soon after, a dark period ensued.
An international drug ring was busted by police for having used the iconic property as a heroin laboratory, the largest ever discovered in Europe. Thankfully Ferdinando’s dream was rescued, and, in 2017, the castle and complex were bought by a company from the United Arab Emirates. The price? A cool 15.4 million euros (approx. US$16.7 million).
Anna Mason is a writer based in England. She majored in literature and specializes in human interest, travel, lifestyle and content marketing. Anna enjoys storytelling, adventures, the Balearic sunshine and the Yorkshire rain.