Racegoers are a busy group, bustling in through the turnstiles, eager to get their first bet on. I was one of those on a stifling hot day at the majestic San Siro Racetrack in Milan, Italy on Sunday June 16 2002.
With an interesting field of 2-year-olds due to line up in the opening event, I was keen to take my place at the mounting yard fence – but as it turned out, the races had to wait, for adjacent to the entrance of San Siro was the most spectacular tribute to the equine that I have ever witnessed.
Already awestruck that week by Stubbs’ famous “Mares and Foals” in the Tate Gallery in London, I could not believe what stood before me — a magnificent 24ft, 15 tonne clay and bronze statue of a horse. And what a horse!
The horse’s story
Standing on a white marble pedestal on a large granite base, “Il Cavallo” as he is known by the Italians, is an inspiring sight. His head strong, his eyes commanding, his neck a flowing curve down to a long, thick back and girth, his tail raised, his near fore and his off hind legs struck out as though midway through a determined stride. One could only stare and marvel — Phar Lap’s statue at Flemington is nice but this is — well, amazing! Where did he come from?
His story, as it turns out, is a long and fascinating one — one that has its roots deep in renaissance history. Way back in 1482 the then 30-year-old Leonardo da Vinci was preparing for a move to Milan, and writing to the Duke of the city — Ludovico Sforza – he offered to build a statue for “the immortal glory and eternal honor of the pleasant memory of the Lord, thy father and of the glorious House of the Sforza.”
And that statue would take the form of a horse, a horse like no other — the tallest in the world. As it turned out Leonardo was kept rather busy during his many years in Milan, as tourists who make the worthwhile trip to see The Last Supper can confirm. He worked on various projects from portraits of Milan’s upper crust to the direction of gala parties and the composition of riddles and rhymes for the court’s amusement.
But he was passionate about his horse and eventually a 24 foot clay model was built in a field not too far out of the city. He must have looked quite incredible standing out there. As the Da Vinci scholar Carlo Pedretti says – “One can well imagine the skyline of such a peaceful landscape, bathed in the yellow light of a misty morning of a September day on the Lombard plain… and see that skyline suddenly interrupted by the imposing silhouette of Leonardo’s colossal clay model, standing there with the foreboding of a Trojan horse.”
The death and resurrection of a sculpture
Unfortunately it was not just Da Vinci and his helpers who were amongst the lucky few to take in this sight — French troops coming across it on their way to invade Milan found it as they invaded the land. Using it for shooting practice they reduced it almost to rubble and nothing exists of it today. Although despondent, Da Vinci was determined to one day see his horse stand proudly, but he was not to see his vision materialise. And so through history, his uncompleted project was known as “the horse who never was.”
In the mid 1970’s, Da Vinci’s sketches and designs, up to that time missing, resurfaced and the story of his lost dream made it into a 1977 edition of National Geographic. Reading this in his lounge room in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania, retired airline pilot Charles Dent was deeply moved. A student and collector of fine renaissance art, he felt an affinity for Da Vinci’s horse and decided that the project should, after 500 years, come to fruition.
After extensive travel, research and discussion with art experts around the world Dent, in 1982 established Leonardo Da Vinci’s Horse Inc, a non-profit organization with the aim of finally building what is now known simply as “Leonardo’s Horse.” Meeting most of the expenses himself, selling many valuable pieces from his own private art collection, Dent went about building a 50 foot high domed studio on his rural property.
Home to the emerging horse, that dome saw a myriad of artists and sculptors (including Nina Akamu, who put the finishing touches on the project) devote their time, with donations pouring in and the media becoming interested. All was going well until tragedy struck in 1994, Charles Dent diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and subsequently passing away on Christmas Day. A few days before, however, his friends had gathered around his bed, vowing that his beloved project would go ahead.
And so it did and a few years later a horse packed in seven cases on a cargo flight made its way to Milan as a gift from the people of America to the people of Italy. September 10, 1999 saw the long awaited unveiling, and how apt that the park at a racetrack was chosen as home for the world’s biggest bronze horse. What a privilege for me to have seen him — a trip to Milan worthwhile in so many ways, but even if only to stand at the feet of Leonardo’s Horse.