Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The da Vinci Coda - A Michigan Horse Tale

In 1499, the victorious army of Louis XII of France entered Milan, Italy by the Vercellina Gate and camped in the neighborhood of San Vittore al Corpo. On entering the city, the soldiers came upon an enormous clay sculpture of a horse. Commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, in honor of his father and as a symbol of the power of the Milan, the finished statue in bronze was to be placed before the Sforza Castle.

Flush with victory and perhaps anticipating more battles to come, the French soldiers used the statue for archery practice. In the ensuing years, the elements reduced the already partially-destroyed clay sculpture to rubble. Thus, one of the great works of the Italian Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci disappeared forever. 

Thousands of miles and hundreds of years removed from Milan, Italy, is Grand Rapids, Michigan, home to the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Recently, after taking a visiting relative to the Grand Rapids airport, we passed the gardens on our way back to our cabin in northern Michigan and decided to pay them a visit. As expected, we found well-tended flower gardens, fountains, winding paths and beautiful sculptures, by artists such as Rodin, Picasso, Miro and Moore. What we did not expect to find was the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci's monumental horse.

Leonardo worked on il cavallo from 1482 to 1493, first on the artistic and anatomical elements of the horse and then on the more difficult technical problems associated with the bronzing of what would have been the world's largest equestrian statue. Work was stopped, however, when Ludovico decided to use the 100 tons of bronze needed to cover the seven-meter (23 feet) statute to make canons to defend Milan from the invading French. The effort was futile. Milan fell, Ludovico was imprisoned and the sculpture was lost.

In 1977, Charles Dent, an American airline pilot and amateur art lover read an article in National Geographic magazine. Entitled "The Horse That Never Was," the article told the story of Leonardo's legendary destroyed masterpiece. Dent decided, then and there, to recreate the lost sculpture and gift it to the City of Milan. He started a foundation and raised $2.5 million.

Dent produced a model for the replica of Leonardo's horse, but although a great lover of art, Dent was not an artist, It became obvious that a professional sculptor was needed to make improvements to the existing model. Nina Akamu, an talented American artist, particularly known for her animal sculpture, was given the commission. Then in 1994, Charles Dent died.

Dent's horse also seemed moribund when in stepped Frederik Meijer. The owner of a supermarket chain in Michigan and a well-known philanthropist, Meijer had read about the project in an article in the New York Times. He agreed to finance the effort and Akamu set about creating her own model.

Although many of Leonardo's notebooks still exist and are filled with drawings of horses, there is no definitive sketch of the 15th-century Milan horse. Akamu, however, studied the notebooks and other works by Leonardo to come up with her 24-foot-high sculpture, entitled The American Horse, which she feels  is true to Leonardo's designs.  

In 1999, five hundred years after Leonardo's model was destroyed, The American Horse was installed at Meijer Gardens. The same year an identical casting was given to the City of Milan. Il Cavallo, as it is known in Italy, stands at the gates of the San Siro Race Course, far from the City Center.

In 2007, the City of Milan announced that Il Cavallo would be moved from the race track to the park grounds of the Sforza Castle, its original intended site. So far, however, no plans have been made for the move.

The Sforza Castle has been waiting for its monumental sculpture for more than 500 years, but - since things often move slowly in Italy - it looks as if it will have to wait a bit longer.

(There's lots more to see and do at the lovely Meijer Gardens.  To visit their web page, click here.)

Click here to see more photos.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


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