LEONARDO DA VINCI’S HORSE STATUE – 500 YEARS IN THE MAKING, AND HOW THE STORY TIDES TO ALLENTOWN, PA

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Horse Statue, or Gran Cavallo for Italians, is one of the largest equestrian statues in the world. It stands proudly at the entrance to the San Siro gallop racetrack’s secondary grandstand in Milan, Italy. You may think it is just another of Da Vinci’s masterpieces, but that is not exactly true. It took 500 years for Da Vinci’s vision to come to life, and it only happened thanks to an art lover from Allentown, Pennsylvania – Charles Dent. Here is a fascinating story of Da Vinci’s horse and its sister statue, The American Horse, located in Cedar Rapids, Michigan. 

MILAN, ITALY-FEBRUARY 15, 2019: Leonardo's Horse (aka Gran Cavallo) the largest equestrian statue in the world by Leonardo da Vinci and Nina Akamu
Leonardo’s Horse (Gran Cavallo) in Milan, Italy, by Leonardo da Vinci and Nina Akamu. Photo: AdobeStock 

Travel broadens your mind for sure. The Da Vinci horse history is a perfect example of learning something new and exciting while on the road. I can openly say I never heard anything about the story until I started to write my previous post, The American West – Sheridan, Wyoming. 

I visited Sheridan as a starting point of my trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. I was hoping to find the Old West charm there. The town not only delivered that but also surprised me with a fabulous display of art on its streets, mostly sculptures.  

One of them is a beautiful statue of a horse. I admired the sculpture but did not realize there was an interesting story behind it. I thought it just fitted perfectly with the Wild West theme of the cowboy town. Then months later, when I checked the statue’s title for my blog post, I got intrigued by its name – Leonardo’s Horse.

Leonardo, not exactly a cowboy name, led me to look deeper into the story of the statue. It turned out that Sheridan’s horse actually had the right to its name as a replica of Gran Cavallo in Milan! What stroke my interest even more was its connection to Allentown, PA – a city just an hour away from where I live. 

LEONARDO DA VINCI’S HORSE STATUE AND ITS COMPLICATED STORY 

Sketch of horse, pencil drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci in a vintage book Leonard de Vinci, Eugene Muntz, 1899, Paris
Sketch of the horse, pencil drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci in a vintage book Leonard de Vinci, Eugene Muntz, 1899, Paris. Photo AdobeStock.

How Leonardo Da Vinci’s horse statue vision was born 

Leonardo da Vinci spent decades of his life in Milan. In 1482, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, challenged him to build the world’s largest equestrian statue in honor of his father, Francesco.

In 1493 Leonardo presented a 24’ clay model of the statue, from which a bronze horse could be made. According to a revolutionary method detailed in Leonardo’s carefully-created notebooks, the Horse was to be cast in bronze.

Unfortunately, the project faced many challenges. When the Duchy of Milan engaged in a war against the French, Ludovico Sforza confiscated the 80 tons of bronze set aside for the horse to make weapons. 

Things got even worse in 1499 when the French invaded Milan. Leonardo’s model, molds, and sketches of the original horse were damaged or lost. Eventually, Leonardo did not attempt the project again and died on May 2, 1519. 

The American Horse by Leonardo Da Vinci and Nina Akamu. Photo by Kevin Beswick, courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

A New Chapter of Leonardo Da Vinci’s horse statue starts in Allentown, Pennsylvania. 

It took 500 years and jump over the Atlantic Ocean for Gran Cavallo’s next chapter!

In 1978, the National Geographic magazine published some of Leonardo’s preparatory drawings for the sculpture discovered a decade earlier in the National Library of Madrid. The article caught the attention of Charles Dent, a retired pilot and art collector from Allentown, Pennsylvania. 

Already an admirer of Leonardo and a Renaissance man himself, Charlie Dent decided that Leonardo and Italy should have The Horse. He imagined it as a gesture of appreciation from the American people for the immense cultural, artistic, and scientific legacy of the Italian Renaissance for the American culture.

As Dent emphasized, “It is the gesture itself which is most important.” There was only one Leonardo, and it was inconceivable to think of replicating The Horse exactly as it existed in his mind. The project’s goal was to produce a sensitive, appropriate monument to Leonardo’s genius and his contributions to today’s world.

Learn how Leonardo Da Vinci's Horse Statue came to life after 500 years in the making and how one man from Pennsylvania made it all happen. #leaonardodavincishorsestatue #horsestatuemilan #horsestatuecedarrapismichigan
Leonardo’s Horse (Gran Cavallo) in Milan, Italy, by Leonardo da Vinci and Nina Akamu. Photo: AdobeSstock

To formalize The Horse project, Charles C. Dent formed Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse, Inc. (LDVHI) in 1982. His talent for promoting commitment to Leonardo’s vision created a large roster of sculptors, writers, business people, teachers, and horse lovers who contributed time, effort, and funding.

In 1988, LDVHI enlisted sculptor/painter Garth Herrick and the work began. Unfortunately, Dent did not live to see the results of his effort. After 17 years of working on the project, he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease on December 25, 1994. 

He left his private art collection to LDVHI, the sale of which brought more than $1 million to the fund. Peter C. Dent, his nephew, took on leadership of LDVHI, serving as the organization’s President, CEO, and Trustee.

The American Horse by Leonardo Da Vinci and Nina Akamu. Photo by Kevin Beswick, courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

Sculptor Nina Akamu brings the final project of Leonardo Da Vinci’s horse statue to life. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse, Inc. (LDVHI) contracted Tallix Art Foundry in 1997 to cast a plaster horse created by  Charles C Dent and Garth Herrick, the initial sculptor.

As the sculpture remained incomplete and contained anatomical problems, Fred Meijer- the billionaire owner of a supermarket chain in Michigan and a new head of the foundation – suggested bringing sculptor Nina Akamu on board to improve upon the Dent-Herrick horse.

After several months of work, Akamu determined that the original model could not work and concluded that a completely new sculpture needed to be created. She researched multiple information sources to gain insight into Da Vinci’s intentions.

She studied both Leonardo’s notes and drawings of the horse and other projects he was working on. She reviewed his thoughts on anatomy, painting, sculpture, and natural phenomena.

Her research expanded to include the teachers who had influenced Leonardo. Akamu also studied Iberian horse breeds, such as the Andalusian breed favored by the Sforza stables in the late 15th century.

Not just one but two full-size Leonardo Da Vinci horse statues come to life after 500 years in the making!

Akamu created a new master model and enlarged it to 24′ tall. From it, two full-size casts were made of her design.

1. Gran Cavallo in Mialan, Italy 

The colossal bronze horse was dedicated in Milan, Italy, on September 10th, 1999. Many American contributors made a pilgrimage to Milan to celebrate the realization of Leonardo’s vision. The statue stands as a symbol of permanence against the destructiveness of war and as a symbol of friendship between nations.

Piazzale Dello Sport hosts Leonardo’s horse, one of the largest equine bronze sculptures in the world. 

2. The American Horse in Grand Rapids, Michigan 

Subsequently, the second full-size cast of Nina Akamu’s design became known as The American Horse. It was commissioned by  Frederik Meijer and was placed at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan, on October 7, 1999.

The American Horse by Leonardo Da Vinci and Nina Akamu.
The American Horse by Leonardo Da Vinci and Nina Akamu. Photo by Kevin Beswick, courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

Even more horses! Replicas of Leonardo Da Vinci Horse Statue. 

While The Horse – as conceived by Leonardo and completed by Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse, Inc. (LDVHI) – stands in Milan, Italy – additional renderings of The Horse of different sizes stand in the United States and Italy.

The Vinci Horse in Vinci, Italy

Subsequently, an 8 ft bronze version of the sculpture was placed in Leonardo’s birthplace, Vinci, Italy, where it was dedicated on November 17, 2001. This statue came to life thanks to gifts from several benefactors, including Peter F. Secchia, the former United States Ambassador to Italy, and his wife, Joan.

The Vinci horse inspired a sister city relationship between Vinci, Italy, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. To express its gratitude, the city of Vinci named one of its plazas after Charles C. Dent.

The American Horse by Leonardo Da Vinci and Nina Akamu. Photo by Kevin Beswick, courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.
The American Horse by Leonardo Da Vinci and Nina Akamu. Photo by Kevin Beswick, courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

The Baum School Horse in Allentown, Pennsylvania 

Dedicated Oct. 4, 2002, a smaller replica, 12 feet high, stands in downtown Allentown’s Community Art Park adjacent to the Baum School of Art, in honor of Charles Dent.

The Da Vinci Science Center Horse

The Da Vinci Science Center – the organization that is shaped by the merger of LDVHI and what was then known as the Discovery Center of Science and Technology – displays a three-foot replica of The Horse in its main lobby. Dedication: Oct. 30, 2005

The Leonardo’s Horse in Sheridan, Wyoming 

And finally, the only Leonardo’s horse statue that I saw in person so far – Leonardo’s Horse in Sheridan, Wyoming. The statue was commissioned by the Wyoming Community Foundation on behalf of the Sheridan Public Arts Committee as part of the city’s commitment to the arts.

Sheridan Wyoming - Leonardo's Horse sculpture.
Leonardo’s Horse in Sheridan, Wyoming. Photo by Yvonne Jasinski. 

An eight-foot-tall statue was placed in Sheridan was dedicated on August 20, 2014. Sponsors of the Wyoming Horse were Sheridan Media, Frackelton’s Restaurant; The Phoenix Limited Partnership; the Sheridan Johnson Community Foundation; the Wyoming Community Foundation; and Kim and Mary Kay Love.

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