A 28-year-old offered his services to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in 1480. The letter writer provided visions of weapons design and military engineering, tasks close in mind to a man whose province had repeatedly churned through turmoil in recent decades The duke’s brother had been assassinated in church and his young son assumed the title, under Uncle Ludovico’s watchful eye. Better armaments might help fend off the numerous challenges from the French, Burgundians, Guelphs (or Ghibellines? or both?), Ottomans–you name it, and there was a threat.
Plus, Ludovico wanted to erect a giant commemorative statue to his grandfather. The letter writer said he could paint a little and knew something about sculpting.
The letter, of course, came from Leonardo Da Vinci. Even though Da Vinci had been apprenticed in an artist’s studio for a dozen years and opened his own studio for a few more, he had not yet completed a major work. Wikipedia calls Da Vinci a polymath, meaning he knew how to do everything. At this point in his life, he hadn’t been able to do much of it yet. But he had a lot of ideas. And he had heard about the horse.
Da Vinci wrote the duke with an offer to take on the project, which had languished due to its ambition and want of a ready sculptor. He claimed “the bronze horse may be taken in hand which is to be to the immortal glory and eternal honor of your house…”
The Duke was amenable. He had tried one sculptor, Antonio Pollaioulo, but signore P had never done such a large project. The Duke was ambitious and wanted to make a splash with the largest version of the largest horse of the most prominent family in Italy. He would spare no expense–but an unknown sculptor would be cheaper, even if the guy had a reputation for his ideas. There were ideas for flying machines, scythed chariots, and moveable bridges for quick battle getaways, so surely a giant horse would be no difficulty.
The Duke hired Da Vinci, and they discussed the project. He wanted a sculpture bigger than the recent ones done by Donatello and Andrea del Verrocchio, who happened to be Da Vinci’s original master. Sforza’s grandfather had been a powerful leader, and Ludovico wanted him pictured on a charging horse with a fallen foe, a rearing horse being symbolic of vigor and power.
The Biggest Horse for the Biggest Guy
Francesco had fought for a dozen a years on behalf of the Guelphs (ok, the papal states) against Venice, Aquila, and Naples. Ludovico had come to his dukedom… oh wait, in 1490, he wasn’t quite duke yet, he was still “regent….” Anyway, Ludovico believed that honoring his grandfather and building out a court, like the Medicis and the Venetians had, would legitimize him. He was a little sensitive because he was dark-skinned and a bit fat–they called him Ludovico “the Moor.”
He also had multiple women in his life: his beautiful young bride, Beatrice, who bore him three children; his mistress Lucrezia, lady in waiting; Isabella, Beatrice’s sister; and so on. Da Vinci himself painted Lucrezia and another mistress, Cecilia Gallerini (#2 and #4 pictured at top).
Ludovico also liked parties, which is why he developed gout and indigestion. An Italian docu-series that centers on the life of Da Vinci suggests that the sculptor was great at creating elaborate machines of entertainment. While progress on the horse didn’t proceed very quickly, Da Vinci was great at building tableaus of the zodiac, women rotating on pedestals dressed as the Virgin or a Greek goddess,with the climax of a rearing horse, a promise of what might be to come.
That’s a Lot of Bronze
The bigger promised version was big indeed. The proposed sculpture would be 26 ft tall; a grown T Rex, in comparison, is about 12 ft. It was estimated to require 70 tons of bronze. Bronze cost considerably more than marble, which was already costly since it had to be imported from different parts of Europe.
The total project requirements in size and volume needed someone knowledgeable about geometry. Happily for Leonardo, one of the foremost Italian mathematicians of the day, your friend and mine, Luca Pacioli, was in town. Pacioli had been hired by the Duke to teach abaco (business arithmetic) to the sons of the court, and he struck up a strong friendship with Da Vinci. Pacioli claimed that the horse might take 200,000 libbre of 12 once each, or 71.5 tons.
It’s known that Da Vinci created a clay version of the statue, itself 20 ft tall. He also drew multiple sketches in varying poses. One of the difficulties of the structure was that its weight, balanced only on three legs, would have been untenable. So the proposed version of the statue would have the horse stomping on one of the vanquished foes, the vanquished’s body helpfully holding up the horse. Da Vinci also considered balancing the horse’s foreleg a tree trunk. He seemed to settle on a version with the horse more solidly on the ground, with only a prancing foot.
Whatever he was going to design took too long.
In the end, whether the Duke kept balking over the amount of the bronze needed or the cost or Da Vinci’s endless distractions-Leonardo stopped for quite a while to paint the side of a dining hall in a monastery with a “themed” commission (The Last Supper). Da Vinci didn’t move forward with any bronze casting. And the French army started marching toward Milan.
When Charles VII of France drew close enough, Ludovico gave the 70 tons of bronze to his brother to build cannons. It proved insufficient, as the French attacked and captured Ludovico. Da Vinci fled to Venice, supposedly with his friend Salai and mathematician buddy, Pacioli. As a thank-you, he provided some sketches that went into Pacioli’s masterwork on geometry, De Divine Proportione. He also started focusing on painting more; La Gioconda was waiting.
You Can Always Try 500 Years Later
In the 1990s, an enterprising Pennsylvanian, Charles Dent, became engrossed with the idea of creating the never-built statue. He also had some challenges raising the $3 million in funds, but with several years of work, persuasion, and partnerships involved, the project went forward.
The horse part of the project anyway. The sculptors did manage to recreate the version of Da Vinci’s horse, with Nina Akamu resolving design issues in the final version. Sans Francesco Sforza, unfortunately.
So Ludovico got his Da Vinci sculpture in a way, although without the tribute to his grandfather. It ended up, then, more a tribute to Da Vinci, installed in the Hippodrome in Milan in 1999.
Only about 500 years late and without the rider. But it is 24 feet tall. And it is a fitting homage to Da Vinci.