Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza Capitolina, Rome (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license photo by Rosemania)
The only original Roman bronze equestrian monument that has survived. Few must have been this good.
Marcus Aurelius rides with his feet hanging free because stirrups hadn’t yet been invented.
He looks large in relation to his horse. Perhaps horses were smaller in those days—they often look so in ancient Greek and Roman paintings and sculpture.
No one knows anymore what his gesture meant.
Some experts have speculated that under the horse’s lifted front leg there was a defeated enemy. But that would contradict Marcus Aurelius’ reputation as a philosopher and a man of peace. Also, he is not dressed as a soldier. In any case, it is possible that there was a figure of some kind under that hoof. For casting requirements the legs of a statue were usually joined to the base; if one was raised, artists made a little figure or ornament out of the support piece for it.
Renaissance artists considered this statue and the lively REGISOLE in Pavia, also of Roman origin, models of excellence.
Regisole (a modern recreation) Piazza del Duomo, Pavia (public domain photo by Superzen)
When Leonardo da Vinci was working on his giant clay horse for the Duke of Milan, he went to Pavia to see this figure and jotted these observations in his notebook:
[Its] movement more than anything else is deserving of praise.
The trot has always been the quality of a free horse.
Where natural vivacity is lacking it is necessary to make accidental liveliness.
The imitation of antique works is better than that of modern. [He seems to have meant that the old Romans imitated Greek work better than his Renaissance contemporaries imitated Roman and Greek work.]
The original Roman figure was destroyed in the nineteenth century. Old engravings show the figure of a dog supporting the horse’s lifted leg.
Engraving of the Regisole by C, Ferreri, 1832 (public domain photo)
GATTAMELATTA by Donatello
This was the first bronze equestrian monument in a thousand years.
Condottiere Gattamelatta (Erasmo da Narni) by Donatello, 1453 (public domain photo by Lamré at the Swedish Wikipedia project) Piazza del Santo, Padua, Italy
The Florentine sculptor Donatello got the commission from the city of Padua in 1445. They wanted a monument to honor their Condottiere Gattamelata.
Erasmo da Narni (called “Honeycat”) was one of the despots of the time, someone who took power by force, and he seems to ride as though in a slow, almost intimidating, victory procession. His horse is strong and heavy. Donatello is more interested in the general shapes of the horse than in its movement, and in showing cold power than liveliness or individual personality. The horse is an obedient servant, like the state itself.
The Condottiere rides stiffly, looking straight ahead. He wields symbols of power: the baton in his hand, the giant sword at his side.
A ball supports the lifted leg—a pleasing device that was imitated many times in later statues of horses. It is an ingenious invention: better than a pointless figure or a box which might seem an obstacle, the ball adds to forward motion. Did its explanation as a globe, the one Gattamelatta rules, come as an afterthought?
COLLEONI by Verrocchio
Verrocchio was Donatello’s student. He got an order from the city of Venice to make a monument to their Condottiere Colleoni.
Condottiere Colleoni by Andrea Verrocchio (cast in 1493) Campo di San Zanipolo, Venice (public domain photo)
Verrocchio gave more life to his statue. Colleoni leans back haughtily and throws a mean look to the left as he rides. He doesn’t just sit on the horse, he controls it. The wrinkles in the horse’s skin, mere designs in Donatello’s horse, here show twisting and the contraction of muscles. Everywhere there is articulation. It is the first Renaissance horse with a leg off the ground: no vanquished foe, no doggie to hold it in the air.
Such a huge bronze cast was a real achievement in those days before there was much experience. The sculptor had to invent not only his clay figure but also a way to cast it. This meant he had to design it with the casting in mind. Many postures that look good in a drawing are unrealizable in bronze. A sculptor, like an architect, must always deal with the limitations of his material—he can’t simply dream in stone or bronze. So a great bronze figure was also an ingenious piece of engineering. Verrocchio died before this one was cast. It was a man named Alessandro Leopardi who brought it off in 1493.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Failure
Leonardo began to make a colossal monument for the Duke of Milan. He made sketch after sketch of a horse and rider and let his imagination fly. He counted on his powers of invention to solve any problems that might come up at bronze-casting time. Liveliness was what he liked. In some of his drawings, like this one for a later monument, the horse stood right up on its hind legs—the front legs were supported by a cowering enemy.
Study for the Trifulzio monument Royal Library, Windsor
But finally he decided that so much liveliness couldn’t be—or was inappropriate for such a monument. And he brought his horse down, though he did still lift a leg or two.
Study of a horse by Leonardo, c. 1490 Royal Library, Windsor (public domain photo)
After a long, long time he finished the clay horse—only the horse, which was 23 feet tall—and started figuring out how he was going to cast it. He sketched and sketched and invented armatures and frames and fire pits and channels for the bronze to flow through. And when he was finished he sketched some more. But he couldn’t figure out how to do it. He spent, according to one report, sixteen years horsing around. Schadenfreude got the better of Michelangelo, who seems to have ridiculed him for being stuck like that. The great inventor and Merlin Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t able to cast his own statue!
The clay horse stood around until some French soldiers destroyed it. Now no one knows exactly what it looked like and it is a shame that someone’s homage to him, though well-shaped and just as large, should be considered Leonardo’s Horse.
Only Leonardo could show us a horse by Leonardo.
Tacca Did the Trick
The two Renaissance statues by Donatello and Verrocchio were the models for a hundred and fifty years. What could be better? They seemed to have done everything that could be done in bronze. Then, in 1660, Pietro Tacca surprised everyone with this spectacular figure of the Spanish King Philip IV.
Philip IV of Spain by Pietro Tacca (1634 -1640) Palacio Real, Madrid, Spain (public domain photo by Luis García (Zaqarbal)
Tacca found a way to make the king’s bronze horse stand up on its hind legs. There is nothing at all holding up the front part of the figure. Tacca got his idea from this painting by Velasquez, where the horse and rider seem to almost float.
King Philip IV of Spain by Diego Velasquez, c. 1634-1635 Prado Museum, Madrid (photo ceded to the public domain by The Yorck Project)
But how do you make a heavy chunk of bronze do the same? What keeps it from falling?
Tacca, like Leonardo with his horse, thought and thought about it. He finally asked his friend, the great Galileo, for advice. “Easy,” said the genius. “Make the front part hollow and the back solid bronze.” In fact, as the British sculptor Robert Mileham wrote, statues are everywhere more or less hollow. But Tacca must have profitted from Galileo’s advice. The horse’s tail, which drops to the ground, serves as a counterweight. In any case, the statue surprises and delights, even if you think you know how it was brought off.
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Balbo