Italian Orientalism: Oriental villas and castles from North to South Italy

Alessandro Vanoli, in his booklet Andare per l’Italia Araba (“Going around Arab Italy”) notes, with regards to 19th-century Orientalism that:

Italy was neither Great Britain nor France: the Orientalist wind blew only lightly in Italy. While in 19th-century Europe “Turkish”, “Moorsih”, or “Moghul” buildings and pavilions were blooming everywhere, in Italy this was a rare, private phenomenon. Nonetheless, the wind blew.

The phenomenon of Orientalist architecture in Italy, albeit “rare” and “private” was anyway not confined to a single region or geographical area: from the North to the South, architectural jewels inspired by a real or imagined Orient dot the long territory of Italy. These architectural experiences are diverse, and probably moved solely by external influences: the typologies are varied, and so are the styles—each building presents unique characteristics and it is, therefore, impossible to determine whether one architect was influenced by another.

Also, it is a mistake to think that Orientalist architecture in Italy was confined to private residences and building: in fact, funerary arts, portable objects, and exhibitions designed, manufactured, and organized on the Italian territory between the 19th and the early 20th century all were more or less clearly influenced by the Orient (whatever it was).

What follows is a series of considerations and pieces of information on some of the most famous and best-known private villas and houses built in Italy following an Orientalist taste. It is in no way complete, but a good starting point to further develop the knowledge on an architectural style that is both exquisitely Italian and deeply xenophile at once.

Villa Crespi

a tiny alhambra on the shores of lake Orta

Villa Crespi was commissioned in 1879 by the enterpreneur Cristoforo Benigno Crespi. The architect Angelo Colla was in charge of the design and construction of the villa. The construction of the villa lasted some 30 years. Crespi’s sources of inspiration were, as written on the official website of the Villa, “the Orient and Baghdad”, but we learn that he gave the architect carte blanche. The result is all but Baghdad-looking: the external structure reminds the Alcazar in Sevilla, with the tower placed in the center of the facade loosely resembles the Giralda. The inside is clearly Andalusian: white stucco decorations, clearly inspired by the Alhambra and the Alcazar, cover the walls entirely.

Villa Crespi cannot be visited—at least, you cannot just go there and have a look.

The villa is today a 5-star luxury hotel and home to Masterchef Italy-judge, and star-Chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo’s 2-star Michelin restaurant.

I was told by the staff that they are proud of the architectural history the villa represents, but no, if I want to visit, I should book a weekend or a dinner. Which anyway does not sound like a terrible idea.

Rocchetta Mattei

the new “patio de los leones”

Cesare Mattei was “special”. He was one of the most famous citizens of Bologna in the 19th century: his family was not noble, but very rich nonetheless. He eventually managed to become “Conte”: Pope Pio X gave him the title in exchange for a real estate donation. Mattei is famous particularly as the inventor of electrohomeopathy (a.k.a. “Mattei cancer cure”). Around 1850 Mattei started to look for a place where he could retire and devote himself entirely to his research in electrohomeopathy: he acquired the Rocchetta, a castle-like construction of the 13th century, and modified it entirely. The construction works started on the 5th November 1850 and the castle started to be used as a private residence 9 years after. We do not have plans, sketches, or notes on the projects and the construction: we do know that the renovation is aimed at using the local resources at best.

The plan of the Rocchetta Mattei is hectic at best: it is a muddle of towers, staircases, halls, and gardens designed in an equally chaotic set of styles—medieval elements, Italian liberty, Moorish architecture.

The most interesting part is the “courtyard of the lions”, clear reproduction of the “patio de los leones” in the Alhambra. The wall decorations even reproduce the Nasrid motto “wa la ghalib ila Allah”. The chamber that was initially destined for Mattei’s grave presents arches clearly inspired by the Mosque of Cordoba.

The best part of it all: Mattei never traveled to Spain, or to the Orient. Everything is the exact reproduction of literary sources.

Mattei’s residence can be visited: finally, it has been reopened to the public.

Castello di Sammezzano

a catalog of the orient in Technicolor

In the 19th century, Italy was a newborn state, and Florence was its capital, at least very briefly. Florence was also the Italian center for Oriental studies—in the 1870s the great Arabists and Orientalists met there and while they were discussing India, Egypt, and Semitic languages, they were brought by train just outside Florence, to the residence of Ferdinando Ximenes d’Aragona, the Castello of Sammezzano.

The villa had been freshly renovated by its owner in a clearly Orientalist style: the project started in 1853 and the result was a mixture of different styles that merge so densely in the Castello that it is hardly possible to recognize one definite source of inspiration: the Castle looks like a gallery of different styles, and probably that was the goal from the beginning. In this regard, the Castello of Sammezzano is a real Orientalist product: aimed at showing, explaining, and cataloging the Orient.

As Cesare Mattei, also Ferdinando Ximenes d’Aragona never traveled to Arab-Islamic countries, and everything that he had built in his residence was inspired by books.

The Castello di Sammezzano cannot be visited apparently and, even worse, urgent repairs are needed to preserve the architecture.

Minareto di Fasano

closed culture

Selva di Fasano is in Apulia, on the heel of Italy. There, in 1912, a local artist and noble, Damaso Bianchi, commissioned the construction of a quite small palace, again, clearly influenced by the Orientalist architectural wave. The tower (a.k.a. Minaret) gives the name to the whole structure. Apparently, Damaso Bianchi employed North African builders for the project.

The villa was donated by Damaso Bianchi’s son to the regional government of Apulia, which later on gave the property to the Municipality.

It has been years now that the Minareto is being renovated: the final aim would be to open it to the public and make it a cultural center for exhibitions and events. In fact, that day looks far away in the future, and the Minareto cannot be accessed.

Villa Sticchi

A contamination of exotic and local styles

“Covered with salt, oriental, like a faded reflection. Crumbled under the vaulted arches and domes”, this is how the actor and playwriter Carmelo Bene described Villa Sticchi-Damiani in Santa Cesarea Terme, Apulia.

The villa was built between 1894 and 1900, and it is difficult, as it happens with the Castello di Sammezzano, to pinpoint a specific style the building has drawn inspiration from.

To my knowledge, the villa cannot be visited and it is used by the local spa. There is no official website for Villa Sticchi-Damiani.

Orientalist architecture in Italy – conclusions

It is hard to write a conclusion on this series of villas and private residences. While their style varies considerably, it seems that all these buildings have in common at least one source of inspiration: Andalusian architecture. Of course, I cannot say exactly why this was a common trait, but it could be a good start for a more extensive investigation.

Sadly, another common feature is the impossibility to go and visit the majority of the villas listed: they are in some cases in a state of neglect or need to undergo some sort of renovations. They are owned either by private or public actors, but in both cases, visits are hard and they remain closed jewels.

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