- Peter Byrne
At the Banker’s Castle
Aggiornamento: 9 nov 2022
The Berkeley Circle paid a visit to the Bank of Naples’s Castle. Bruno Bovenga, whose working life at BN made him the perfect guide, took us through the edifice in Lecce’s Via XXV Luglio, the former headquarters of the BN for almost eighty years. It was to stand unlit, grim and intimidating for a score of years, a bitter reproach to civic pride. In 2019 an admirer of buildings with soul, René De Picciotto, acquired it, deciding he had enough of a forlorn ghost in the midst of a city he loved. He invested in bringing life back to the sturdy skeleton. Now it sparkles as a centre-point across from the earth-hugging Teatro Politeama Greco.
Lecce has been admired and then some for its glorious Baroque architecture that ranged onward from the latter 15th-century to the end of the 17th. It has overshadowed what was built before and afterward. The wave of Baroque had in fact been preceded by five centuries of Romanesque architecture that produced gems along the Adriatic extending as far as Otranto and its Cathedral. Of these, the Duomo, Lecce’s Cathedral, was built in Puglia Romanesque style in 1144 and only fitted out in Baroque five centuries later. S. Nicolò e Cataldo Church in the city’s Monumental Cemetery [see The Other Lecce, here] is a 12th-century Romanesque masterpiece hung with Baroque frills in 1710.
Furthermore, Lecce may be dozy but it hasn’t stood still. There has been a post-Baroque. Paul Arthur reminded us in 2021 [see Puglia in the 'Belle Époque’, here] that hidden and forgotten in the city were characteristic mementos of Art Nouveau, the style of building and decoration that spread over the world in the 19th-century. Which brings us back to Via XXV Luglio and Palazzo BN, built in 1904 and subsequently given a in Fascist-style facelift. Its long service and decrepitude followed until it was reborn today in splendour. It stands tall as an eclectic bookend to the Art Nouveau epoch, with a bow to classic Italian taste and hints of ArtDeco that the recent refurbishing has enhanced.
The amiable manager, Gianni told us of the pleasures and services now offered. There is a gym in the ‘ex-caveau’, former basement vault rooms. The ground floor is devoted to food with a gastronomic display on the marble slab that was the reception counter of the Bank of Naples. There is the Red Restaurant stunningly upholstered in crimson, the Ammos Fish Bar, and the Banco Lounge Bar. Luxury suites occupy the first and second floors. The roof terrace provides a café setting and panoramic views over the city on all sides.
Bruno Bovenga gave us a savoury tale of banking from behind the counter windows. Progress was slow over the years. For a long time a customer wanting to get at his cash had to queue before a teller. His turn come, he would produce his savings booklet which would be passed on to another employee to be scrutinised. After deliberation and grudging approval, what had become a dossier was sent to the cashier who with reluctance overcome by generosity would surrender the customer’s cash.
Into the 1950s, Bruno told us that the manager of the branch was something of a emperor. He lorded it in his office at the head of the green Guatemalan marble stairway. One pharaonic branch director insisted that the senior management came Sunday mornings to accompany him and his family to mass. They had to stand on the stairs with their heads bowed, waiting for him to come down. Leaving the church, retreating to a bar for coffee, there was a struggle of sycophants to see who would stir the sugar in his majesty’s cup.
The Banco di Napoli was charged with issuing Lecce Province’s ‘Sussidio Baliatico’. This was a benefit paid once a month to single mothers that Bruno translated sprightly as “Nanny aid”. There was great competition amongst his male colleagues to serve as cashier on payment day. It was a chance to review a tasty segment of femininity from the morally superior side of the counter.
The Bank, not short of enterprise, operated a pawnshop that offered a very special service. ‘Anticipo su pannine’ Bruno rendered as ’Advance on trousseau’. Families in need pawned their wedding adornments. If they missed the date to retrieve them, one would like to believe there was heart-rending as the Bank sold them off by auction. Similar activities took a lot of pre-electronic space and in part explain the size of the building. There was room for secrets. In the ancient foundations of the modern structure were underground passages that connected to a criminal court and were used to convey the condemned to the place of execution. These remained, and an aged colleague of Bruno insisted that he had seen skulls fixed in their walls.
High drama had once interrupted the quiet life of queuing customers, unwinding red tape and the unhurried flutter of bank notes. Bruno himself missed it. He was not out for a coffee break but on his way back from a refresher course in Naples. It was half-past four on a grey November afternoon in 2000. Giuseppe Alberti di Catenaya shot himself in the head in the Bank’s toilet. He was a high-flying employee who kept a penthouse in Lecce, a yacht in Gallipoli and claimed to be the Earl of Presicce and to own a castle there. Over ten years he had removed 20 billion lire, 10 million euros, from the Bank’s accounts. Despite his head wound Alberti lived on for five years, no longer a dandy but a vegetable, while a colleague had to prove he was not involved in the wannabe-aristocrat’s criminal fantasy.
The building’s soul, we said, had attracted its new owner. And a soul of any weight is always haunted. Bruno Bovenga would not deny that ghosts had been sighted in the elegant, freshly renovated Palazzo BN. How not to believe his word, banker’s honour? 13 years ago he was the person who last closed the gate of the unrestored building in which he had worked for 30 years.