Protome Carafa by Donatello

The colossal equine protome is known as Carafa Head or Carafa Horse because it was owned by Diomede Carafa who had it as a gift from Lorenzo De Medici called Il Magnifico. The head was part of an unfinished equestrian monument to be installed in Naples in honor of Alfonso V of Aragon.

Protome Carafa by Donatello Protome Carafa by Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi; Florentine, c. 1386–1466). c.1455, Bronze, 175 cm.

Commenced shortly after the Spanish king wrested control of Naples from the French royal dynasty, the Angevins, the monumental gateway at Castel Nuovo served to commemorate, in durable marble, Alfonso’s triumphal entry into the city in 1442–3; and it announced, in a broad epigraph spanning the arch’s front, his intention to transform the castle into the seat of a vast Mediterranean empire stretching from Catalonia to Sicily. Cast and finished in 1455, the fragment languished for more than a decade in the sculptor’s Florentine workshop, the contents of which the Medici inherited following his death in 1466.

Realizing that the monument would be installed far overhead, that is, Donatello magnified the horse’s most salient features, enlarging its eyes, nostrils, and mouth to the point of abstraction and modelling in high relief its veins and the puckered skin limning its jawline, all to enhance its legibility from afar. It was these very distortions, in fact, that scholars first adduced to establish a connection to the Aragon Arch.

Alfonso V of Aragon aspired to have an equestrian monument to himself set in the centre of the upper arch of the vast entrance gateway to the Castel Nuovo in Naples, one of the most impressive and ambitious works of the early Italian Renaissance, marked by a profound interest in the antique.

Entrance facade of the Castel Nuovo

Entrance facade of the Castel Nuovo (ca. 1448–50, pen and ink and brown wash over black chalk on parchment and contemporary photo)

Having for some time wished to have Donatello in Naples so that he could work on the creation of the gateway of Castel Nuovo, begun in 1453, Alfonso managed to contact the artist through the offices of the Florentine merchant Bartolomeo Serragli. Serragli was in fact the agent for numerous commissions from Florentine artists for Neapolitan patrons, also making purchases on the antiques market for Florentine collectors.

In February 1453 Serragli sent one of his intermediaries to Padua to draw up an agreement with Donatello and to pay him an advance for a “bronze horse yet to be made”. In the autumn of 1456 Serragli made other payments to the artist, who must have made fair progress on the upper part of the monument. The inspiration behind the work was very probably the antique Horse’s head that Donatello had seen in Florence in the garden of Palazzo Medici.

Carafa head and Horse head Medici Riccardi (exhibition in Palazzo Strozzi, 2022)
Carafa head and Horse head Medici Riccardi (exhibition in Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze, 2022)

However shortly afterwards the sculptor must have abandoned the bronze work, being unable to keep pace with his numerous commissions, and in 1457 he went to Siena, returning to Florence only in 1461. In the meantime, in 1458 both King Alfonso and the agent Serragli died. Donatello’s monument for Castel Nuovo remained unfinished, also in view of the fact that the successor to the throne of Naples, Ferrante I, had neither the interest nor the funds to continue work on the vast gateway, which was taken up again only in 1465 and concluded in 1471. In the interim Donatello too had died, in 1466.

In April of the same year Lorenzo il Magnifico visited Naples and certainly saw the new gateway of Castel Nuovo, still in the course of construction and devoid of the equestrian monument to Alfonso of Aragon. It is not hard to imagine that, once he had returned to Florence, the Magnifico retrieved Donatello’s unfinished sculpture, having it adapted to a free-standing equine protome, and then sent it to Diomede Carafa as the leading exponent of the Aragon court.



Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi

"The Afterlife of a Sculptural Legend in Aragonese Naples" by Daniel M. Zolli

Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam