Why Leonardo’s last statue took 500 years to finish

Da Vinci died before he could complete his massive bronze sculpture of a horse, something that wouldn’t occur until the 20th century.

At the request of Ludovico Sforza, the future Duke of Milan, Leonardo da Vinci began working on a sculpture that would be the largest equestrian statue in the world in 1482. Leonardo made sketches of the horses in the Sforza stables, from which he designed a seven-metre-high clay model.

Leonardo wanted to cast the horse in a single operation and designed elaborate plaster molds to make that possible. In his innovative process, the inverted molds would be buried between two ovens, and molten bronze would fill them to cast the statue.

Studies of horses drawn by Leonardo da Vinci circa 1490, when he was planning “Il Gran Cavallo.” Collection of the Royal Library, Windsor Castle, Windsor, England

War versus art

The plans were set to create the giant horse, but war with France engulfed Milan in 1499. Sforza needed the bronze for weapons, not art, and the materials were diverted to forge cannons. The French defeated Milan, occupied Sforza's lands, and destroyed the clay horse. Leonardo’s drawings and plans survived, but the artist died in May 1519 before “Il Gran Cavallo” could be brought to life.

Gift horse

Roughly five hundred years later, inspired by a 1977 National Geographic article, “The Horse That Never Was,” American art patron Charles C. Dent made it his life’s work to erect the statue. Following Dent’s death in 1994, sculptor Nina Akamu carried out Leonardo’s plans and in 1999 unveiled a full-size, 15-ton bronze sculpture of the horse, which now stands in Milan, Italy. Five replicas of this version are also on display in museums worldwide.

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