Leonardo’s Horse: A Dream 500 Years in the Making

by Kristin Berkery

Da Vinci’s dream of a 24-foot-tall horse statue took 500 years to become reality.

American Horse in Grand Rapids, Michigan

The American Horse statue at Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Photo by Michael Reed

Around 1482, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to create the largest bronze horse statue in the world. Not only did its sheer size make it a tremendous challenge for da Vinci, but the artist was also busy creating The Last Supper and working on a variety of other projects for his patrons.

A 24-foot-tall clay model of the horse statue, named Gran Cavallo, was unveiled in 1493. Over the previous 10 years, da Vinci had been busy collecting 58,000 pounds of tin and copper for the eventual casting of the sculpture, but a French invasion put his plans on hold. The tin and copper were made into cannons and the huge clay model was destroyed in 1499 by French soldiers. Da Vinci fled Milan, reportedly with a broken heart at knowing his great horse would never be made.

One of da Vinci's early sketches of the Gran Cavallo statue.

Nearly 500 years later, an American retired airline pilot named Charles C. Dent read the story of “Leonardo’s horse” in a 1977 issue of National Geographic and was inspired to make the enormous statue a reality. His dream was to create the world’s largest bronze horse statue, which he named Il Cavallo, and give it to the city of Milan. He sought donations and advice from various scholars on whether the full-size statue was feasible. In 1982, he established the nonprofit Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse Inc. to ensure the project’s completion.

Dent died in 1994 but the project continued to move forward. A new sculptor, Nina Akamu, was brought in to create a new eight-foot-tall master model in 1997. Billionaire Frederik Meijer (of Meijer supermarket fame) got involved around that time and offered to finance the creation of an identical statue that would remain in the U.S. It was agreed that the copy, called American Horse, would stand in the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Meijer’s financial contribution helped to ensure that the entire project, including the statue to be given to Italy, would be a success.

American Horse in Grand Rapids, Michigan

American Horse
Photo by Michael Reed

The first 24-foot statue was unveiled in Milan, Italy, on September 10, 1999 — exactly 500 years after da Vinci’s first clay sculpture was destroyed by invading French troops. The second horse was presented to the public at Meijer Gardens on October 7, 1999. The only difference between the two sculptures is that the Italian version stands on a marble base.

The project cost about $2.5 million and took 500 years and countless people to come to fruition.

Vital statistics on the American Horse:

  • 24 feet tall at the highest point
  • weighs 15 tons
  • made of silicon bronze, alloy #872
  • engineered to withstand high winds and earthquakes

A 12-foot bronze replica was dedicated to Charles Dent on October 5, 2002, in Dent’s hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania. An eight-foot statue was given to the city of Vinci, Italy, the hometown of Leonardo da Vinci, and another eight-foot statue can be seen at the Sculpture Education Center at Meijer Gardens. An eight-foot fiberglass copy travels around the country to promote the project and the friendship between the U.S. and Italy.

In all, the project cost about $2.5 million and took 500 years and countless people to come to fruition. The result is the world’s largest horse sculpture and a truly majestic sight. To see photos of all the statues from the Leonardo’s Horse project, visit Travelogue of an Armchair Traveller. Learn about the project’s creation and view a slide show of photos at Da Vinci Science Center. See additional photos of the bronze’s fabrication at the Pollich Tallix Foundry in Beacon, New York.

9 thoughts on “Leonardo’s Horse: A Dream 500 Years in the Making

  1. Pingback: Dream Horses
  2. Joni says:

    Wonderful story and horse art! Thank you so much for sharing it. I am so happy that this great horse was finally created. I thank everyone that had a hand in its creation.

  3. Sheila says:

    What an interesting story. But, I have to say this as an artist myself.. the horse looks like a monster.. the conformation and the head/face/ his nostrils are not correct. Wow, had I not ever seen a real life horse, and saw only this, I would not be a horse lover today. This one is downright scary looking! Majestic yes, but so is a T Rex.

  4. Apollo says:

    If you look at any of Davinci’s horse sketches, they all look imaginative and monstrous. Not having proper conformation or sometimes even assuming positions that are pushing a horse’s limits of flexibility. This statue is to commemorate Davinci’s sketches, not to recreate an anatomically accurate horse. :)Personally, from another artist’s perspective, I find it amazing that an artist, such as Davinci, could create such a stylized image of horses that 500 years later we can look at sketches, reproductions and statues and know immediately that it is a “Davinci horse”.

  5. Kristin says:

    Thanks for your comment 🙂 Like many other horse sculptures, this one is also stylized and has certain exaggerated characteristics. It’s still a breathtaking tribute to Da Vinci and the equine form.

  6. Jenny Cook says:

    Wonderful story.
    The vision, to show the beauty and power of horses, is brilliant from the start.
    We are thankful for of the gift of horses.
    I hope can increase access to horses for all the benefits they hold.
    Every past generation of people embraced and worked with horses.
    We are the first generation of society that hasn’t utilized or enjoyed all of their natural potential.
    Thank you for the gift.

  7. MJacobs says:

    What, no mention of Beacon, NY, home to the foundry that created this incredible statue, and put it on display in the foundry’s front yard for all the locals to view? Too bad. We are an important mention in any story about this statue. Come visit sometime…

  8. Thank you for sharing that info! When I update the article, I’ll include the foundry 🙂

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