Leonardo da Vinci’s Great Horse

No one knows exactly what it looked like—a giant equestrian statue in honor of the Duke of Milan. It was Leonardo’s idea. “I will make the greatest statue in Italy to honor your deceased father,” he told Ludovico Sforza. “Just wait and see.”

Here are some sketches Leonardo made for a later monument (Trivulzi):
leonardo-studies-horse-sforza

leonardo-studies-trifulgio-monument2

He would have liked a rearing horse. Sculptors had always had to give up that tempting idea because of the support problem. Leonardo’s clever solution would have been a cowering enemy soldier under the horse. He would actually hold it in the air with his raised arm.

But after thinking about it and making dozens of drawings, Leonardo probably realized he wouldn’t be able to bring it off, and he brought the horse down.

leonardo-sforza-on-fours

Once he had a little model he liked, he erected a huge wooden framework many times its size, dressed it in clay, and began modelling.
“Those who saw the great clay model…considered that they had never seen a finer or more magnificent piece of work,” says Vasari.

But the real problem wasn’t the clay figure, however large. The real problem was casting the figure of the horse in bronze.
“He carried the work forward on such a scale that it was impossible to finish it,” says Vasari. “This was because it was so large that it proved an insoluble problem to cast it in one piece.”
Why Leonardo insisted on casting it all in one piece no one knows. Perhaps Vasari was wrong.
Leonardo made drawing after drawing, trying to imagine how to support the figure inside and out and where to place the pipes so that the liquid bronze would flow properly inside the mold.

leonardo-bronze-casting

leonardo-studies-bronze-casting1

But he couldn’t work it out. Time passed and the statue stood around. Too long. “There have even been some to say that Leonardo had no intention of finishing it,” says Vasari. “And seeing that so many of his works remained unfinished, one can realize why, the outcome being what it was, many came to the conclusion they did. …As our Petrarch has said, the desire outran the performance.”

His enemy Michelangelo heard about this and huffed. It confirmed his idea of Leonardo, the eternal horser-around who could impress with his big ideas but never really bring any off because they were just wishful thinking. Michelangelo had to go through the agony of casting his own big portrait of Pope Julius in Bologna and he knew what casting was. His technicians ruined his figure and he had to model part of it over again.

What happened to Leonardo’s giant clay model?

“It was preserved until the French [soldiers] came to Milan under King Louis and smashed it to pieces.” You couldn’t beat it [miss it] as a target for small artillery or a hip-shot with a rifle after a swig of wine. Leonardo was no longer living in Milan. He had fled years before when the city was threatened by a French army.

The problem of how to make a huge statue of a rearing horse wasn’t solved until the seventeenth century by Pietro Tacca. This spectacular equestrian statue of the Spanish King Philip IV, based on a painting by Velazquez, claims to be the first. It stands in front of the Royal Palace in Madrid.

felipe-iv-ecuestre-madrid

How did Tacca manage it? The legend goes that Galileo himself told him how: “Make the front part hollow and the back part solid bronze.”

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23 Responses to Leonardo da Vinci’s Great Horse

  1. In my understanding “solid bronze” is not an option technically, even today. To make the clay original must have been a technical achievement also. How they did these things with only horse and man power is extraordinary. The other thing I imagine, was the industrial espionage problem, you certainly did not want to share your techniques with your rivals; but would be very interested to know how they did things!

  2. 100swallows says:

    Robert: Maybe Tacca’s so-called secret of the solid bronze was a ruse to throw off rivals. “Since you’re my friend I’ll tell you how I did it,” he whispered to them. “The solution came from Galileo himself.” And when the “friend” was all ears Tacca told him that lie or half-truth. You don’t have to go back to the Renaissance to find tight-lipped craftsmen, as you yourself have surely seen. A lot of knowledge comes after hard work and it is natural to consider it a reward and your secret.
    I suppose by “solid bronze” Galileo only meant extra-thick. In any case, the thickness of the bronze alone doesn’t seem to be the whole secret. How do you think this was done, Robert? It still looks like a magician’s trick. The tail hides a thick square rod.

  3. erikatakacs says:

    I like the horses and the third picture the best. They look better than Donatello’s or Verrocchio’s, especially the one on the bottom. What a loss!

  4. Ken Januski says:

    Fascinating history, 100swallows.

    For some artists I think problem solving is the highest priority, though I once had a teacher in graduate school level that at me as an accusation. She obviously had a different perspective. But I wonder if that might not help explain Leonardo. Maybe he was mainly a problem solver. So sometimes he continued to try the seemingly impossible and at other times he lost interest after he’d solved the problem mentally?

    Of all the recent horse sculptures I think I’ll stick with Donatello, though they’re all a great pleasure to see. Leonardo’s drawings too.

  5. Siavash says:

    I have a collection of art blogs on a new page of my website and have added your link in this page. Please take a few moments to review my site: http://www.figurativedrawing.com and your link: http://www.figurativedrawing.com/figurative_drawing_artblogs.htm
    Could you please see my link on yours?
    Regards
    Siavash Mahvis

  6. Peggi Habets says:

    I love the first drawing, the way the horse and man are twisted in opposite directions and how the man is bent forward for balance. The marching horse is so boring to me.

    I can relate to losing interest in creating a “finished” version of a sketch. Sometimes the sketch is the best part of a project.

  7. kimiam says:

    I’ve been told the rearing horse with both front legs in the air means the rider died in battle. One leg in the air means the rider was injured in battle. Both front legs on the ground means the battle was won and the rider was not harmed.

    Is this just in the U.S.?

    My friend from Baghdad sculpted a horse with a rider -both have fallen and he says this symbolizes that the war was lost, but fought bravely to the end.

  8. 100swallows says:

    Kimiam: I’m glad I had never heard of those meanings when I was studying horses. I found it frustrating enough when a real jockey told me my horse was no good because it couldn’t stand with both left legs back and both right ones forward. A girl once told me that in Galicia (Spain) an upside-down horse brings good luck, so I spent a weekend modelling one for her. I liked the little thing much more than she did. I don’t know if it brought her good luck.

  9. 100swallows says:

    Peggi:I agree that the sketch often beats the finished figure but it would be nice to have just one horse statue by Leonardo, even if it “marches”.

    • g tharp says:

      I have a friend that has a leonardo da vinci original mold of an equestrian.
      It has been authenticated by Carlo Pedretti. Looking for buyers if you know of anyone please contact me . Only serious inquieres please.

  10. 100swallows says:

    Siavash: Thanks for that link. I saw some very good drawings on your blog.

  11. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Ken. Probably Michelangelo would tell you that Leonardo was NOT a problem solver. He gave up on his projects when the going got rough. Even so, the world was grateful that he left a record of his fantasies. I like Donatello’s horse too, though I might have preferred Leonardo’s had it survived. I’m soon going to post on Michelangelo’s horses (the drawn ones, of course). I wonder what you think of them.

  12. wrjones says:

    Great story – clever solution in making the back part solid. This sounds like a lot of my projects that don’t seem to work in the end. Mine are on a somewhat less grandiose scale.

  13. I really do not know how it was done then. These days a hidden stainless steel L shaped rod is used but as you say it is still a carefully guarded secret even from the artists, most work like this is done by Foundries and engineers!

    The problems of a variation in thickness of bronze causes distortion, you can get away with a little but it is not wise. Casting solid bronze is not an option, things go very wrong! It is possible however to weld sections together of different thicknesses hiding the joins by chasting and patina. Most bronzes have been done in sections.

    In Manchester they have had problems with that spiky sculpture, it became dangerous!

    I have posted that picture of William III up for you Swallows.

  14. 100swallows says:

    Thanks a lot, Robert. I just got back from a visit to your blog and a good look at the statue. I had to look up all kinds of things I didn’t know and it was fun. You got me daydreaming about London and another life I should have lived. I will comment over there.

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  16. Rich says:

    Fine reading once more!
    Tacca found a real smart solution for that rearing horse. Such a pity Leonardo’s clay model was smashed to pieces by those French soldiers.
    How many priceless works of art have suffered a similar fate: As the poet says, in an even larger context:
    “An idiot’s hour destroys what centuries made.”

  17. Pingback: First Great Equestrian Statues | The Best Artists

  18. Sarah says:

    This is a wonderfully informative post! I was just working on a post of my own on Civil War equestrians and wanted to link to something about Leonardo’s horse project – so glad I found your site! Hope I can send some traffic your way.

    • 100swallows says:

      Sarah: Thanks. I’m glad you found the post informative. I had a look at your blog and particularly liked the post on the meaning–or rather, non-meaning–of lifted and unlifted legs. I too was surprised to see how widespread this misconception was. Good luck on that study of the Citizen Soldier.

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