Leonardo Da Vinci’s Horse

September 10, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


NICK GLASS: For a man with his eye on posterity, the idea is pure Leonardo. This horse amounts to a somewhat belated thank you to the Renaissance. There’s no doubt about the size of the gesture. This is some gift horse: Chocolate brown, 24-foot high, and 15 tons, mostly bronze. It was cast at a foundry outside New York, and was first assembled there for public display.

MARTIN KEMP, Oxford University: Do I think this really tells us what Leonardo’s horse looked like? The answer, I think, sadly is no. No one could do that. But if you think in terms of this extraordinary obsession which the world still has with Leonardo, with the “Last Supper,” then this is a wonderful episode in that obsession.

NICK GLASS: In Milan, there’s a statue of Leonardo outside the mayor’s office. And at its foot, the story of his greatest unrealized commission, horse and rider, three times life sized for the Duke of Milan. We have 20 or so of Leonardo’s preparatory drawings, and a notebook detailing his plans for casting. But war intervened, and the bronze went for making cannon. Leonardo only got as far as making the clay model.

CHARLES AVERY, Sculpture Expert: Unfortunately, there was a French invasion, and French crossbowmen shot it to bits when they were using it, I suppose for target practice, and for fun, as soldiers will when they’re relaxing after a conquest. And we have no exact record of it.

NICK GLASS: What Leonardo left us then was a series of delicate studies, most of them now in the Royal Collection of Windsor. No one thought to act on this blueprint until Jolly Dent, of Fogelsville, Pennsylvania, read about the horse that never was. Dent was an airline pilot and a collector of mostly second-rate sculpture. But his obsession until his death in 1994 was building Leonardo’s horse. And he left $1.5 million in his will for that exact purpose. At the American Foundry, it has taken over three years of endless refinement, the horse evolving in scale and in parts up to 60 of them. Original models made by Charlie Dent and his friends were discarded as being amateur, and the task of making a horse worthy of Leonardo’s name eventually fell to a Japanese-American sculptor.

NINA AKAMU, Sculptor: If someone had approached me and said, “we want you to create a tribute to Leonardo da Vinci,” I would say, “are you crazy? I would never even attempt that.” You know, what would I do? Instead, the manner in which the project unfolded, I said, “I’ll go sculpture this for you. No one will know. I’ll help your project out. I’ll fix it. You can send it to Italy.”

NICK GLASS: The ceremonial unveiling was in Milan this morning, and the horse has ended up at the city’s San Ciro Race Course. Leonardo’s original was destined for the main courtyard at the Duke’s castle, but the Milanese drew the line at putting its American descendent there. Nina Akamu’s next commission is a Japanese American War Memorial in Washington. She’s certainly brought a vitality and a degree of restraint to the Leonardo project. She dissuaded the company Charlie Dent endowed from having the horse gilded.

NICK GLASS: Do we take it to be a horse after Leonardo, or do we take it to be a Nina Akamu?

NINA AKAMU: (Laughs) It’s the truth. It’s Nina Akama’s tribute to Leonardo.

NICK GLASS: The man himself would probably have been delighted. He was very interested in fame, and his name is now attached to a $6 million horse. To pay for him, he’s being twinned. Another one is being made for a park in Michigan.