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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Mar. 2003
The Horse's Head
I am always amazed to find something original in better condition than the copy. I thought that was why they made copies—because the originals were in such terrible danger of deteriorating. That is why I set out to find the building in Naples called, popularly, ‘the house of the horse’s head’.
Technically, the name is Palazzo Santangelo (also known as Palazzo Diomede Carafa) named for the representative of the Aragonese court who erected this building in the middle of the 15th century. It incorporates part of an earlier structure from the 1200s. It is one of the most interesting Renaissance buildings in Naples, containing elements of Florentine and Catalan architecture. The rectangular stone facade, marble portals and wooden door are all original. Worn by time, but still visible, are twelve niches depicting members of the Carafa lineage. The ‘Santangelo’ name of the building goes back to the person who bought the building in 1813 and restored it, as well as making it a repository for works of fine art, many of which, unfortunately, have gone missing over the years. It is on via San Biagio dei Librai, also known as "Spaccanapoli". It is the bottommost of the three parallel east-west streets that make up the historic center of Naples, those streets that are laid over the old Greek and Roman roads. The building is a block east of the large square named Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. (See #22 on the map of the historic center.)
I had heard that there was a copy in the courtyard of a bronze horse-head, a gift to Carafa from Lorenzo the Magnificent. Much popular superstition has formed around the statue over the years: for example, merely bringing sick animals into the presence of the statue was said to work miraculous cures! Naturally, the original statue would be lost, destroyed, ravaged by time or otherwise not at my disposal, so I had to find the copy.
In my heart of hearts, I think I was hoping to find peasants bringing their sick goats and sheep to be healed. Alas, the building was an absolute mess. It was in the agonizing process of being restored. There was scaffolding on every wall in the courtyard; bricks were strewn about; and everything was covered with fine powder blown off the piles of plaster and cement. General construction debris was everywhere. But the horse was there. The head was mounted on the back wall of the courtyard at about eye-level, but it was barely visible beneath a rickety framework of pipe-and-wood scaffolding; there was an overturned wheelbarrow in a pile of stucco nearby. The statue was covered in grime and had become totally non-descript.
I expressed my disappointment to a gentleman standing nearby. I wondered when all the work would be done. Hard to say. Probably a long time. Why didn't I go see the original? The original? Sure. Up at the National Archaeological Museum. It's on display, you know. I didn't.
Indeed. I found the real
horse's head, but not exactly where the gentleman
said it would be. The city—ever onward in its
campaign to bring art to the people—has moved this
original gift from Lorenzo the Magnificent next door
to the new Museum stop of the Metro line—a train
station. Thus, as you trot down the stairs to get
your train, you look up over the entrance and there
it is, encased behind protective plastic. It is
truly splendid and I shall return. I have a goat
that is not feeling too well.
update, Jan 2012: Well, the courtyard where I first looked for the copy of the head some years ago finally got cleaned up. Unfortunately, the horse is not feeling too well at the moment, either. One ear is missing (photo).