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Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Horse That Wasn't, Is

Late in the 15th Century, while living at the court of the Duke of Milan, Leonardo da Vinci met his greatest artistic challenge. The Duke, Ludovico Sforza, known as Il Moro, decided to honor his father Francesco with an equestrian statue. In 1482, he commissioned Leonardo to design and build the largest equestrian statue in the world.

Leonardo spent years preparing the design of Il Cavallo (The Horse), and he managed to take it as far as the clay model. But, before it could be cast, the Duke -- facing imminent war with the French -- sent the bronze he had gathered for the horse to be cast into cannon. To top it off, when the French invaded Milan in 1499, the huge earthenware model was destroyed by Gascon archers, who used it for target practice.

Sforza was exiled and Leonardo returned to Florence. His patron gone, the project was abandoned and many of Leonardo's key drawings for the project were misplaced.

In fact, however, the drawings actually did survive the centuries, and in 1995, the "lost notebooks" of Leonardo were rediscovered in Madrid's Biblioteca Nacional. The story of what happened then is fascinating, culminating in 1999 -- exactly half a millennium later -- when Il Cavallo was cast in bronze, in one piece, in a foundry in New York State. The artist responsible was an American sculptor, Nina Akamu.

Two castings of the giant equestrian statue were made. The first was sent to Milan as a gift to Italy from the United States. The other went to the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, in Grand Rapids, MI. Standing 24’ high and weighing 15 tons, Il Cavallo is still the largest free-standing horse statue ever made.

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