Leonardo of Michigan: One of the Renaissance Master's Best Designs Is in Grand Rapids

American Heritage, November-December 2005 | Go to article overview

Leonardo of Michigan: 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 The Da Vinci Code, the popular and controversial fiction bestseller now being made into a movie. And he remains a favorite subject for cable television, including a two-part series coming up on the History Channel in December.

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 24-foot-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.

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