A Horse Centuries in the Making

Leonardo da Vinci left unfinished plans to sculpt the world's biggest equestrian statue, but now his dream is nearing completion

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Sixty miles north of New York City in a state-of-the-art foundry, a 500-year-old Italian dream is finally coming true. Il Cavallo, a three-story-tall plaster horse, stands ready to be cast in bronze - centuries after Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by the Duke of Milan to sculpt the biggest equestrian statue in the world.

War and time's ravages thwarted what the legendary Renaissance man considered to be his greatest project, but Charles Dent, a retired American airline captain, refused to let the dream die.

"As far as mortals are capable of doing it now, we know we can do what Leonardo was trying to do," says Roger Enloe, Mr. Dent's brother-in-law and president of the board of trustees of Leonardo da Vinci's Horse Inc., the fund-raising arm of Dent's efforts.

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An article in the September 1977 issue of the National Geographic about the lost equestrian monument sparked an idea that Dent pursued for the rest of his life.

Dent read that in 1483, Milan's Duke Ludovico Sforza wanted to manifest his power by memorializing his father on horseback in the form of the largest bronze equestrian statue in the world. He commissioned da Vinci, who brought his typical flair and bravado to the assignment: He designed a method to cast the sculpture in one pour of 80 tons of the tin, copper, and zinc alloy - a technique that is now considered impossible for an object of such immensity.

Under the Duke's patronage, Leonardo spent almost two decades working on a 24-foot clay model of a horse, while also making time for "The Last Supper," anatomical studies, and some architectural work. We'll never know if the sculpture would have been Leonardo's masterpiece or a molten mess, because Sforza used the bronze to make cannon for battling the French, who took over Milan in 1499.

The occupying soldiers used da Vinci's giant model for archery practice, and the clay titan eventually fell apart. Leonardo, better known for the "Mona Lisa" and for his attempts to make possible human flight, reportedly carried his disappointment about this thwarted effort the rest of his life.

Moved by da Vinci's frustrating story, Dent vowed to re-create the statue and give it to Italy in thanks for producing the artistic innovations of the Renaissance. Leonardo's drawings for the horse were the only remnants left of the great project, but Dent was undeterred. A founder of the peace-promoting Business Council for the United Nations, he wanted to prove that art was stronger than war.

The lifelong bachelor spent his captain's salary on trips to Europe, where he consulted Renaissance scholars and experts. He also built a Renaissance-style dome on his farm in Fogelsville, Pa., to house his studio, and ultimately, he planned "Leonardo's horse."

Several volunteer sculptors joined him in his cause, but the process was slowed by financial problems.

Finally, in 1992, Dent and his team produced an eight-foot model. But two years later, the idealistic artist died and, like his hero centuries ago, never saw the fulfillment of his goal. However, with Dent's passing came $1.1 million from the sale of his collection of Renaissance art. The sum was added to Leonardo da Vinci's Horse Inc. and kick-started the next phase.

Now a plaster steed of Brobdingnagian proportions named Il Cavallo, which means "the horse" in Italian, swallows a warehouse's vast interior at the Tallix foundry in Beacon, N.Y. Like some parade balloon or a dinosaur skeleton, the 24-foot charger demands craning of viewers' necks to take in his curling lips and defiant eyes.

Barrel-chested and possessed of the massive haunches of a Belgian draft horse, Il Cavallo's face appears slightly human, its mouth straining as if to shout a challenge. There is no rider, by design: "That would politicize it. The rider would have no meaning," explains Mr. Enloe.

Tallix is renowned for producing oversized sculptures, but even its veteran model-builders were stunned when they finished enlarging Il Cavallo several weeks ago after a year's work.

"When it was assembled, they were shaking with excitement," says president Greg Glasson. Recent attention by the international media, from German and Italian television to The New York Times and People magazine, is also causing a stir at the foundry.

Costing $800,000, the job included hoisting the horse's sections around a steel structure.

"It looks like a miniature bridge in there," says Milan Kralik, a full-time English teacher and collaborator on the smaller model. He oversees the details of the latest incarnation, striving to be true to both da Vinci and Dent.

After another month of refinements, the behemoth will be cast in a dozen bronze sections, assembled for final adjustments, and taken apart again.

An invisible steel armature will be fabricated to anchor the 12-ton horse to a marble pedestal.

If $1.5 million more can be raised and negotiations with the Italians solidify, the pieces will be shipped to Milan, welded together, and covered in gold leaf in time for the statue's dedication on Sept. 10, 1999, the 500th anniversary of Milan's occupation by the French.

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