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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Mar 2010
Palazzo Penne (photo, right) is one of these. It is at a small square called Piazza Teodoro Monticelli, not far from the church of Santa Maria la Nova, and was built around the year 1400 by Antonio da Penne, the secretary to Ladislao of Durazzo, ruler of Naples (see "Dynasties" for a time-line of dynastic rule). The building is easily distinguished by the Tuscan-type ashlar facade, one of the few buildings in Naples to have such. It was inhabited as recently as the 1970s and apparently is still lived in by some squatters. The building is in the throes of an on-again/off-again restoration project potentially financed by UNESCO as an historical monument worth saving. For the past five years or so, the property has been the subject of a tug-of-war between private parties and the Orientale University, which would like to have it restored as a site for classrooms. At this point, all you can say is that the place is a totally degraded mess.
The most interesting thing about Palazzo Penne is the legend connected with it. Local lore calls the palazzo “the devil’s building.” It seems that Antonio Penne decided to impress the woman he was wooing with a new home that would be built in a single night. He did this with the help of the devil—in exchange for his own immortal soul, however. The contract stipulated that the devil, before taking Antonio’s soul, was required to count all of the grains of wheat strewn from a sack onto the courtyard within the building. Clever Antonio, however, threw a goodly amount of pitch into the sack, fusing the individual grains of wheat into an amorphous mess, impossible to count. The devil went and hid himself in the well in the center of the courtyard, promising revenge. There have always been other wells in the courtyard, but none in the center, which fact was presumably enough to put your average medieval home-owner at ease. Just an old legend—no well, no devil! Recent work on the building, however, appears to have discovered another well right where the devil said he would be waiting.
Local mythologists claim to
see the image of the devil—or at least a
gargoyley-looking critter—in one of the patterns of
the facade. Each individual protruding ashlar brick
has a pattern, usually a fleur-de-lis, the symbol of
the Angevin dynasty, which ruled Naples when the
building was put up. Additionally, along the top of
the facade is a row of 13 trefoil arches. The sixth
one from the right (detail, above photo) has such an
image. As far as I can tell, it is unique among the
patterns on the facade and was presumably put there
by the original owner. Technically, the figure is
called a grotesque
and not a gargoyle
(which in the precise terminolgy of architecture
applies only to waterspouts, grotesque or not); in
any case, such grotesque figures were common as
good-luck charms on medieval buildings all over
Europe. They are not uncommon in Naples.