Leonardo’s “Horse That Never Was” would have assured his unparalleled reputation as a sculptor. This is the romantic story of Leonardo’s unfulfilled passion, the resurrection of the idea by Charles C. Dent, and the gift of The Horse to the people of Italy.
During the 17 years that followed the Duke of Sforza’s 1482 commission of the largest equine statue ever conceived, Leonardo da Vinci also worked on one of his masterpiece paintings, The Last Supper, and a series of portraits of Italian nobles. He also produced a city plan for Milan, new weapons designs, and a defense system for the castle that the Duke probably should have taken more seriously. The Duke also expected Leonardo to create stage sets, manage gala parties and compose rhymes and puzzles for the ladies of the Court. Royal sponsorship clearly did not always release Leonardo to pursue his artistic endeavors.
A 24-foot clay model would finally dominate the landscape in a vineyard near the Duke’s castle. The Horse was to be cast in bronze according to a revolutionary method that was detailed in Leonardo’s carefully-created notebooks.
Scholar Carlo Pedretti describes this place, “That site, which is today a dense and noisy urban district, was then a pleasant expanse of open fields, dotted with trees and shrubs, or neatly kept as orchards, vineyards or citrus groves. One can well imagine the skyline of such a peaceful landscape, bathed in the yellow light of a misty morning of a September day in 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.”
That must have been the way the Gascon bowmen of the French troops saw it when they entered Milan on Sept. 10, 1499. Instead of admiring the model’s majesty, however, the victorious French archers used it for target practice, reducing it tragically to a mound of clay.
Leonardo would not attempt the project again and died on May 2, 1519. Legend has it that he never ceased mourning his lost horse.
Many of the working sketches for The Horse were lost over the centuries that followed. One set of notebooks, known as the Windsor Collection, came into the possession of the British royal family. Another collection, now known as the Codex Madrid II, was discovered in Madrid’s Biblioteca Nacional in 1966. An article in the Sept. 1977 issue of National Geographic magazine about Leonardo would launch a new existence not only for Leonardo’s horse, but also for Charles C. Dent, a retired airline pilot, artist and art collector living in Fogelsville, Pa. The romantic legend, with its combination of creative genius and human frailty, cast its spell over Dent. It even seemed appropriate that Charlie Dent spent so much of his time flying, an experience for which Leonardo yearned.