Naples:life,death &
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 entry Mar 2010

he Legend of Palazzo Penne

Many of the buildings that you see in the historic center of Naples along via dei Tribunali or Spaccanapoli are from the 1500s and 1600s, built at a time when the Spanish viceroys encouraged landholders from the provinces to move into the city. A number of earlier buildings go almost unnoticed and are, in many cases, in terrible condition —not at all surprising since they have gone through at least 600 years of wear & tear, earthquakes, fires, floods, and neglect.

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 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. Also, along the top of the facade is a row of 13 trefoil arches. The sixth one from the right (detail, above photo) has one. 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 terminology 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.

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