Amateur sculptor makes da Vinci's dream reality

Bronze horse: Leonardo da Vinci never finished his 24-foot-tall bronze horse, but Charles Dent did.

August 04, 1999|By Andrew C. Revkin | Andrew C. Revkin,New York Times News Service

BEACON, N.Y. -- Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci's long-held plan to cast a 24-foot-tall bronze horse for his patron, Duke Lodovico Sforza of Milan, crumbled when invading French troops used the full-size clay model for crossbow practice.

Leonardo never completed the piece, which would have been the largest equestrian sculpture in the world, and some biographical accounts have him crying on his deathbed over the unfulfilled vision.

Leonardo's dream, first articulated as a postage-stamp-size sketch, was revealed in three jaw-dropping dimensions, in the form of a proudly prancing 15-ton bronze stallion that was cast and assembled at a foundry here, 60 miles north of New York City.

The transformation of the horse from dusty red sketches to burnished bronze was the result of another man's dreams. In 1978, Charles Dent, a United Airlines pilot, art collector and amateur sculptor from Allentown, Pa., read about Leonardo's unfinished project in an issue of National Geographic and began crafting a preliminary clay model and raising money to cast the statue as a gift for Milan.

Dent died in 1994, but in his will he endowed a foundation to see the project to its end. Now, $6 million and five years later, the result towered over a crowd of several hundred visitors from as near as around the block and as far away as Milan's City Hall.

"This is an homage to the Renaissance," said Dent's nephew, Peter Dent, who is a trustee of Leonardo Da Vinci's Horse Inc., the private group created to build the horse. "He loved Leonardo and he loved that era."

The public showing here was the last step before the sculpture's seven pieces were dismantled and flown in an Alitalia jumbo jet to Milan, where the horse will be erected on a pedestal, welded into a single piece, and unveiled on Sept. 10, the 500th anniversary of the day the French army occupied the Ducal palace and disfigured Leonardo's prototype.

While children, retirees and passing commuters snapped photographs, inside the cavernous main building at the Tallix Inc. foundry, which cast the sculpture, workers busily polished the weld marks on pieces of the only other full-size casting, which is scheduled to be shipped this fall to Grand Rapids, Mich., where it will be displayed in a new sculpture park.

The air held a mix of the dank smell of clay and the tang from the wine-red wax that burns away in the final step when the bronze is poured.

Dozens of other works in every conceivable style and in various stages of completion crowded the five-story room. A life-size clay model of a nurse destined for the site of a former nursing school in Hartford, Conn., stood near a 17-foot-tall clay model of Antinous, a pleasure-loving figure in the court of Hadrian, which will be cast in artificial marble and sent to the Peppermill Casino in Reno, Nev., said its creator, Gail Demi Wilday, as she scraped a bit of clay from the giant's toe.

But everything in the foundry building was dwarfed by the clay model that was the basis for the snorting bronze horse on the lawn outside.

Wilday, pausing in her work, said the power of the horse lay in its history. "It shows how the dream world can become a reality," she said. "When I stand under the head and look up, I just want to cry, it's so overwhelmingly beautiful."

The open house at the foundry was scheduled to last all weekend, with a Renaissance fair being staged by local merchants, who are promoting this slowly reviving city as a haven for the arts. Earlier this year, the Dia Center for the Arts announced that it plans to turn an old printing factory at the other end of town into a gallery that will be larger than the Museum of Modern Art.

In the throng surrounding Leonardo's horse, which was ringed by gold rope, reactions ranged from abstruse analysis by art aficionados to spontaneous outbursts from children.

Nina Akamu, the sculptor who built the 8-foot clay model that was enlarged to make the giant final bronze, described the two years of research that went into the final version. The main resource was a trove of Leonardo's drawings that surfaced in Madrid in 1965, but only a few of those were directly related to his plans for the Milan horse, she said. One of the key drawings was one inch across, and to get from that to a full-size sculpture required a lot of artistic license, Akamu said.

"This is not a re-creation of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing," she said. "It's a tribute, an homage, a synthesis."

Giangaleazzo Visconti di Modrone, a representative from the City Council of Milan, shaded his eyes and stared up at the horse, which is captured in mid trot, with one hind leg and one foreleg suspended in the air, nostrils flared, eyes glaring.

He said he recently viewed some of Leonardo's red-pencil drawings in a Venice exhibition. "It is very well made," he said of the sculpture. "It has the same strength, the same lines."

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