One of the Renaissance master’s best designs is in Grand Rapids
Half a millennium after he flourished, Leonardo da Vinci is still making news. Earlier this year researchers found a previously unknown studio where Leonardo worked on some of his most famous paintings. His mystique is invoked in
One of Leonardo’s most impressive works was actually created within the last few years. In 1482 he began designing a monumental sculpture of a prancing horse for the Duke of Milan. He worked on the idea for almost two decades, but it was never built, partly because the bronze that would have gone into the statue was used for cannon, but also because casting the 24foot-tall, 65-ton behemoth would have been impossible with the technology of the day. In fact, it would still be impossible, or close to it, with modern technology. That’s why when the statue was finally made, it was not cast in a single piece, as Leonardo had intended, but assembled from sheets of bronze attached to an internal steel skeleton, at about one-fifth the weight of the earlier plans.
The effort to build Leonardo’s horse was led by Charles Dent, a retired airline pilot living in Pennsylvania. After reading about the never-built statue in 1978, he set to work raising funds, assembling a team of supporters, negotiating with the Italian government, and choosing artists to combine Leonardo’s multiple sketches into a single sculpture. The project continued after Dent’s death in 1994, and eventually two full-size statues were built. One went to Milan, the city Leonardo’s original horse was meant for; the other went to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Why Grand Rapids? The city is home to Frederik Meijer Gardens, an outdoor museum combining sculpture and horticulture (see www.meijergardens. org and www.leonardoshorse.org/ american.asp). When Mr. Meijer, a longtime local philanthropist, learned of the Leonardo’s Horse project, he thought a duplicate would look great in his museum’s collection. So in 1996 he put up the money for a second horse. The two statues were unveiled in 1999, Milan’s in July and Grand Rapids’ in October. Frederik Meijer Gardens also houses an eight-foot replica of the horse statue, this one indoors; other replicas can be found in Leonardo’s hometown of Vinci and in Allentown, Pennsylvania, near Dent’s former home in Fogelsville. A small rendering in plastic of an earlier design for the statue, this one with a rider, is in Nagoya, Japan.
As a repository for Renaissance art, Grand Rapids is no substitute for Milan. But as Carla Davidson pointed out in these pages last year, it is an excellent place to see a wide variety of art from more recent centuries. And anyone viewing the 24-foot horse is sure to be impressed by the grandeur of Leonardo’s vision, while realizing that in the end it was simply too ambitious, even for the Renaissance’s greatest master of art and technology.