Leonardo da Vinci, The Dream And The Dreamer
by Ton Pascal
“Perfect, perfect, perfect,” says Professor Carlo Pedretti of the recently discovered ‘Horse and Rider’, a bronze sculpture by Leonardo da Vinci, May 2012. This bronze was cast from a mold handcrafted by the master in beeswax over five centuries ago…
Leonardo’s dreams seem to have surpassed the dreamer. It is amazing to see all of his lost objects popping up all over the world. It is no wonder since Leonardo lived like a nomad for the most part of his life. At times on the road, he would trade a painting or a sculpture with a farmer for the simple living necessities. So, in the end he had work scattered all over the Italian territory, but not necessarily in rich Palaces.
Take a look at the dates and places on chart at the bottom of this page to better understand Leonardo’s journey. Some of the reasons for this incredible genius’ wandering life were his impetuous character, pride, insecurity and fears. And to top it all, Leonardo carried with him his own ‘Pandora Box’; his birthright. He was an illegitimate child, born out of wedlock, which was a common occurrence then, but nevertheless quite humiliating and legally limited the living prospects of the poor child. On that particular time and place, 1400 Italy, an illegitimate child had no rights to property, high schooling or to hold any public job. Leonardo’s professional choices in life were few. He could become a man servant, a priest or an artisan. And artisan was his birth father’s choice. At fifteen he took the boy to a painter’s atelier and left him there to become an apprentice. Leonardo was out of his birth father’s house for good. From there on they hardly ever spoke to each other.
A case in question that illustrate Leonardo’s plight, is his inheritance from his late uncle Francesco, with whom he had spent a few years of his childhood. The old man had left Leonardo a little farm-house in Vinci. Once the Will was read Leonardo’s half-brothers sued him, stating that as an illegitimate child he had no rights to that property. After years of litigation, the court’s final verdict stated that Leonardo could inhabit the house until his death but it would never be his property for sale or trade. Fortunately enough, Leonardo, a quick learner, lived his life and dreams to the fullest counting only on his intellect because friends were few and family support was none.
Leonardo dreamed of accomplishing something that would have a valid purpose and have an immediate, highly emotional impact on the viewer, in short, a master piece. It is no wonder that in 1482, when the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza mentioned to Leonardo that he would like to build the largest equestrian statue in the world, a monument to his father Francesco Sforza, Leonardo, at once, jumped at it. He didn’t waste any time, the following day he presented the Duke with a first design. Il Moro liked the design and commissioned it on the spot. Right there one of the Leonardo’s major dreams started to unfold.
The monument was huge. They both thought big, but this big had never been seen, even in ancient Greece or Rome, not to mention Milan in 1482. Nothing in this scale had ever been attempted before. To everyone’s amazement, Leonardo’s calculations called for seventy-five tons of bronze for the horse alone. There had never been anything cast in bronze of this size before and no foundry existed then that could handle this complex engineering exploit. But that was no problem for Leonardo who calculated, invented, and sketched new ways to accomplish his dream. Like an obsession, the horse project took a lot of Leonardo’s time.
By the end of 1497, Leonardo finally put his hand to work on the sculpture. He considered sculpting a tedious manual job. From the tons of blocks of fine red clay the huge animal started to take shape. Two years later Leonardo finished a full scale, clay model that was ready for casting. This project took seventeen years of intensive research, sketch studies, and labor. The resulting sculpture surpassed anything the Duke and everybody expected. The finished, monumental clay model of the horse alone stood twenty-four feet high. The ‘Sforza Horse’ as it was called, was prominently displayed in the Sforza Castle courtyard and brought people from all over the country to admire it and praise the Master.
Then in early 1499 disaster occurs! The French invade Milan and take over the Sforza Castle. Leonardo was unhindered in his private quarters at the palace. By then, he was the town’s biggest celebrity. The conqueror French King, Louis XII, even named Leonardo ‘court painter’ and allocated him a decent salary, but Leonardo didn’t trust the new French governor Charles D’Amboise. Claiming some lame excuse of unfinished commission, Leonardo asked permission for a short leave. Permission was granted. Leonardo and his household took to the roads looking for new patrons and didn’t come back to Milan.
The governor sent spies and messengers all over the Italian territory demanding Leonardo’s immediate return to Milan. He was, after all, the court painter of the King of France, and his absence from the Milanese court was unacceptable and inexcusable, said the messages. Leonardo finally agreed to return to Milan but mainly to escape the law suit the ‘Gonfaloniere Signoria’, the governing body of Florence, had brought against him for not finishing a paid commission, the fresco “The Battle of Anghiari.”
Leonardo had the chock of his life when he entered his old quarters of the Sforza Castle. The much-admired masterpiece, seventeen years of hard labor, his beautiful horse had been destroyed by French soldiers, which used it as a target practice. That was the end, for Leonardo, of one of his much loved dream.
But the dream lives on…
In 1977, Charles Dent, of Fogelsville, PA, a retired airline pilot and lover of arts began work to recreate Leonardo’s colossal vision. Charles died in 1994 after 15 years of loving labor on the project. The organization he had created to finance this venture brought in Nina Akamu, a talented animal sculptor, to finish the job. Leonardo’s horse replica, the monumental sculpture, twenty-four feet high, was finally accomplished in two copies in 1999.
On September 10, 1999, exactly five hundred years to the date after the destruction of Leonardo da Vinci’s colossal horse, Charles Dent’s modern tribute to Leonardo was dedicated in Milan, Italy, at the hippodrome de San Siro. The second sculpture is now at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, a natural park in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. The human figures dwindle besides the majestic size of the horse. Leonardo’s original project would still have Francesco Sforza on the horse in full armor, which would bring it to at least another ten feet higher.
Important dates in Leonardo da Vinci’s life.
1452: Birth: April 15, in the town of Vinci, Italy.
1460: The young boy move to Florence with his grandfather.
1467: 15 year old Leonardo starts his apprenticeship with Andrea del Verrocchio.
1472: Leonardo enter Florence’s Painters guild. He is 20 year old.
1476: Public trial. Leonardo is accused of sodomy, he is acquitted. 1482: Disillusioned with Florence he enters Ludovico Sforza’s court in Milan.
1490: Salai, a 10 years old street urchin, move in with Leonardo.
1497: Start to sculpt in clay, the ‘Sforza Horse”
1498: After 3 years of work Leonardo finished the mural ‘The Last Supper”.
1499: France invades Milan. Leonardo leaves town.
1500: Leonardo and his household travel to Venice, Mantua and Florence
1502: Cesare Borgia is his new patron. Leonardo travel all over the Papal States: Romagna, Marche, Imola.
1503: Leonardo escapes Borgia and goes back to Florence.
1504: Death of Leonardo’s estranged birth father.
1506: Leonardo returns to Milan.
1512: France loses Milan.
1513: Leonardo gets a commission from the Pope’s brother and move to the Vatican.
1515: France re-conquers Milan.
1516: Alienated and humiliated by the Papal court, Leonardo moves to France.
1519: On May 2, Leonardo da Vinci died peacefully at the Chateau de Cloux, France.