Among the numerous artistic and architectonic articulations of Mackenzie Castle – first work and masterpiece of the Florence architect Gino Coppedè – stands out, because of its incredibly scenic setting, the romantic area of the artificial caves, which overlook a paved courtyard under the level of the building and connected, through a small door, to a section of the garden sloping down to Via Cabella.
Such area is accessible through a stair leaning against the walls and decorated with a group of archaeological findings and stone and ceramics relieves. This type of decoration – also present in other parts of the Castle, as in the Loggia dei Cavalieri, on the large terrace at the side of the tower, or in cellars – takes inspiration from the use, firmly established in the palaces of many Tuscan cities, of walling in the facades of the courtyards a sort of gallery of coats of arms. The weapons applied to the walls of the courtyard, even if being inspired to low Medieval and Renaissance typologies, date back to the late 19th and early 20th century, and many of the glazed terracotta were realised by Ulysses Cantagalli’s Tuscan manufacture. Combined with no philological criteria to such decorations, the walls of the courtyard have some Roman imperial archaeological findings and a slate of travertine with inscription, which can be dated back to the middle of the 1st century B.C
The area of the courtyard is strictly connected to the naturalistic setting of the caves, with the common objective by the architect and the client – the wealthy Scottish broker Evan Mackenzie – of surprising and amazing the visitor through the reconstruction of places full of historical reference points, in an impossible dream of linking the present to an ancient and glorious past. Getting back to the wide setting of the underground caves of Mackenzie Castle, the realization of this spectacular environment – framed by a loggia with gothic arches decorated with the repeated motif of the salamander – was originally determined by the need to cover the hole made in the garden during the construction excavation within the construction site.
The wide and deep system of artificial caves – whose mysterious suggestion can be compared to the one created by the internal caves of the Neuschwanstein Castle, built in the second half of the 19th century by the king Ludwig II of Bavaria – was conceived, in an area of around 500 square metres, thanks to the realization of a steel frames slab resting upon the perimeter walls of the Castle and in the walls surrounding the property. To such slab – by means of iron grapples similar to big hooks – the architect hanged stalactites probably coming from Postumia and kept together by a mix of concrete.The theatrical taste, inspiring such romantic artificial representation of an obscure and wild nature, determined the creation of a picturesque cave, formed by stones, rocks, and stalactites to which it was possible to access also from inside the castle through an opening in a room in the basement. From this passage, two paths started: the first one went through the entire ring itinerary; the other one brought to the outside of the caves through a passage linked to the courtyard, marked by two stone columns with black and white horizontal bands. The fascination and the enchantment of this large underground cave were further increased, originally, by the flow of a river that, crossed by a rustic wooden bridge, gathered in the end in a sort of small lake.
Some oral testimonies by Evan Mackenzie’s descendants recall that the river was navigated, during the opening of the castle, by a small boat; while it is almost certain that an extension of the cave used as an underground passage to access the stable and the garage outside the walls contained some water games. The interior of the artificial cave is the suggestive setting for a concrete copy of the Venus de Milo that, in terms of measures, feature and relief of the drapery, is perfectly equal to the original one.
In the basement, surrounded in the inferior part by a relief representing a camels and seahorses procession, it is possible to detect the influence of the exotic taste that well developed in Italy between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Curiously, an identical version of the statue is, always in Genoa, in the garden of the neo-Gothic castle conceived by Enrico De Albertis and built between 1886 and 1892 under the supervision of Alfredo De Andrade, on a project by the engineers Graziani and Parodi, the sculptor Agostino Allegro and the architect Marco Aurelio Crotta. The theme of the Venus is proposed again in the staircase in the main entrance by the copy, identical in the features and measures, to the Venus de Capua housed at Naples National Archaeological Museum. This interest by Mackenzie towards the representation of the love goddess is confirmed also by his portrait made in 1902 by Luigi De Servi – famous painter and official portrait painter of the Genoese and Tuscan bourgeoisie – and housed at the Modern Art Gallery in Genoa. The Scottish businessman is represented inside a pictorial frame that highlights his double activity of entrepreneur and art collector. Behind him, it is possible to see a small copy of the Venus de Milo that, even if it was a recurrent presence in the furnishings of the various studios of the painter, as confirmed by other paintings, has a significant link to the above mentioned copy of the famous statue positioned in the most remote cave of the Castle.