Palazzo Penne, built in 1406 for Antonion Penne, the private secretary of King Ladislas of Anjou, is a rare example of the architecture of this period with its blend of Catalan (doorway) and Tuscan (façade bosses) elements. The renowned Antonio Baboccio was probably the designer. Penne’s influence at court was such that he was allowed to be buried along with his family in the church of Santa Chiara, a site reserved for the royal dynasty.
To gain some idea of the size of this Palazzo, just think of its stables (in the courtyard) that could accommodate 40 horses and 6 cars. The lily, the symbol of the royal dynasty, and the feather (the family emblem – penne means “feathers”) are engraved all over the façade and entrance. Other carved symbols, revealing both the religiosity and the superstition of this eminent dignitary, probably excited the imagination of the ordinary people, who spread a scurrilous tale about him, which follows below.
Above the doorway, right in the centre, clouds are pierced by rays of ‘divine’ light. On either side of the relief, a hand holds a ribbon on which is engraved a phrase from the Latin poet Martial, which warded off the evil eye by these words: “Avi Ducis Vultu Sinec Auspicis Isca Libenter Omnibus Invideas Nemo Tibi” (You who do not look favourably on this place, O envious one, then envy everyone, [because] no one will envy you).
The Palazzo is traditionally said to have been built by the Devil (Beelzebub) himself. to whom Antonio Penne appealed by signing a written agreement in his own blood. The noble fell deeply in love with a girl, who, not knowning which of her many suitors to choose, imposed unrealistic conditions on all of them. She promised to marry Antonio Penne if he could build a grand palace in a single night. No sooner said than done: Penne charged the devil with the task, although he took the precaution of asking for a small clause to be added. The poor devil, overjoyed to possess such a soul and sure that he was the smartest, accepted and carried out the job. When on the next day he asked for his due, the noble Penne first demanded that his clause should be respected. This clause stipulated that before the debt was paid, the service provider must count grain by grain all the corn spilled in the courtyard of the palace, the number of grains having already been noted in a sealed letter. Beelzebub burst out laughing and in two ticks picked it all up.
But once the letter was opened, he realised he was five grains short: Penne had cunningly coated them with pitch so they would stick under Beelzebub’s nails. The Devil tried to protest but his overload made the sign of the Cross and he was forced to disappear.
So next time you are in Naples, visit the Palazzo – and see for yourself the Devil’s handiwork???
(Adapted from Secret Naples by Valerio Grimaldi Maria Franchini, published by JonGlez)