In the middle of Naples, in the beating heart of a crowded city, stands a crumbling palazzo. Its outsized windows stretch skywards, offering glimpses of cornice collapsing into dust. The city is afflicted by a slow and steady decay which began in its heyday. This particular palazzo is as unassuming as any other; its facade commands no special attention. But there’s a puzzle inside its walls.
A sign beckoned: “Museum – Free Entry”. Another hand-painted sign within the courtyard declared this an “Art Gallery”. I was sceptical but persisted – it’s free, anyway. I climbed a steep staircase that promised ever less the higher I went. Finally, I arrived – I was here. Apparently? What was ‘here’? A corridor ushered us through a haphazard bar and past a flock of plastic tables and chairs. I was ready to turn tail but my friend had already powered on.
Ahead lay an idyllic, rooftop terrace overlooking the courtyard. I had left the sweaty streets far below and far behind to enter another place – one that drifted somewhere between old-world Italian charm and a quiet, meditative space – not easy to find in a city as frenetic as Naples.
Dimly-lit rooms drew me on. I explored the first of a maze of rooms and was met there with the oddest array of furniture – a mustard velvet sofa in the shape of a third of an octagon, missing its partners, and a drab-black, Ikea-esque coffee table. What is this? Modern art? Unimpressed, I moved on. In the next room, the most exquisite tiles covered floor, walls – every surface. Golds, yellows, and oranges winked from glistening squares. They seemed to have been freshly recovered and were quite out of place among the disrepair of the ceiling. A sofa suite dancing with chintzy, 70s flowers filled the room – the odd unity of restored palazzo grandeur and furniture that was not even ‘cool retro’ was just funny. Mirrors on the walls turned your own reflection into part of the motley decor.
The rooms went on and on, circling around the central courtyard – thousands of square feet of prime Neapolitan property. Rooms that boasted high ceilings, warm, natural light, grand fireplaces, dated green carpets, holes in the floor, cracked ceilings, posters, countless office chairs, sofas, armchairs, chairs I’d only seen at my grandmother’s mittel-European salon. There was even a sofa made from the bonnet of a long-dead Citroen, and the oddest collection of artwork.
It was artwork that stretched beyond its frame. Artwork that consisted of splattered blood – red paint, hopefully, but disturbing nevertheless – covering tumbledown plaster work. Artwork that was enticing, sensual, threatening and just plain odd. In a corner of one of the rooms facing the street, paint pots and brushes had been abandoned mid-use. Artworks covered the floor and heaved against the dense, old walls. Clearly someone worked away in this corner, furiously producing all manner of things. Aside from the odd voice or footstep, I was alone. It was spooky and magical all at the same time. Rooms felt derelict and yet totally loved.
As I approached what was clearly the central room, whose windows opened onto both the outer street and inner courtyard, I could hear the faint melody of Bobby Hebb’s Sunny – unbelievably, it was the very song whose name I’d tried to recall earlier that day. I felt an unexpected shiver of excitement and pressed on. The main room was a carpeted haven with an inexplicably varied array of seating crammed into every corner. A record player rolled its melodies out from one end. People sat, drank beer, and looked out the windows; everyone was relaxed.
My friend went to the bar and came back with a beer and the answers we both craved. “The guy said that he and his brother bought this floor of the palazzo a while ago. It was completely falling down and they’ve been restoring it ever since, with donations and money they get from art classes they hold here. Everything in it, furniture, etc. is donated as well!” That explained the hodgepodge. It also explained the magic. Everything in the building had a history and a story and was collected in a unique and unprecedented way. I can honestly say I have never seen anything like it.
As I sat sipping my beer, I contemplated what this so called “art gallery” was doing. The place was restored by the imagination of two men and it required the generosity of others. Its absurdity demanded imagination from everyone involved. Artist, onlooker, donator or collaborator.
The maze of rooms – filled with trinkets from disparate lives and lost eras – had no apparent use or function. Despite this, everything was congruous. It all, somehow, made sense – no-one seemed puzzled or fearful of the ‘art’ (unlike in so many galleries and museums) but at rest, beer in hand. Would it be too much to say that the whole palazzo, which lacked any unity, any singular piece of high art or familiar rules, was a canvas for my own imagination? If so, then those two brothers had done a marvellous thing in unlocking not only the potential of a crumbling building but also of a person.
Why did I feel so much more inspired and at ease than I often find myself at ‘real’ galleries? I was at ease because I knew what I was looking at – a room is a room no matter where you are, a chair will always be a chair. I was inspired because I had to work to turn the everyday into something that made some sort of sense. Why was every object where it was? Who had given what, why and from where? What was the original use of this room, that trinket? To let it sit with no sense or code, no signage, was as challenging as it was rewarding. Some things in that palazzo were totally inexplicable. The combination of old glamour and communal charm was overwhelming. I had fallen upon a place like no other – a sort of Neverland that offered every possibility.