Biographies & Memoirs

The Sforza Horse

On 22 July 1489 the Florentine ambassador in Milan, Pietro Alamanni, dispatched one of his regular newsletters to Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence. It included the following:

Prince Ludovico is planning to erect a worthy monument to his father, and in accordance with his orders Leonardo has been asked to make a model for a large horse in bronze, ridden by the Duke Francesco in full armour. As His Excellence has in mind something wonderful, the like of which has never been seen, he has directed me to write to you, to ask if you would kindly send him one or two Florentine artists who specialize in this kind of work. It seems to me that although he has given the commission to Leonardo, he is not confident that he will succeed.109

Though there are some uncertainties about Leonardo’s fitness for his task, at least in the mind of Ambassador Alamanni, this letter is a crucial document. By mid-1489 Ludovico has commissioned Leonardo, at last, to create the great Sforza Horse so long spoken of. Despite the doubts, the commitment is a serious one: the ‘model’ which Ludovico has ordered from him is not a scaled-down miniature but a full-size version of the statue in clay, which would then be used to create the mould for the bronze itself. Ludovico has the later stages in mind when he requests two Florentine specialists ‘in this kind of work’ – i.e. large-scale metallurgy and furnace-work – though in the event Lorenzo wrote back saying no such maestro was available.110

Over the last seven years we have seen Leonardo striving to establish himself at the court of the Sforza, and with this major public commission we can at last say he has arrived. It links with other signs of preferment – the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, undoubtedly commissioned by the Moor, and the remodelling of the Duchess’s ‘pavilion’ in the castle garden, which also probably bears Ludovico’s personal imprimatur. These too can be dated to around 1489.

Leonardo had certainly done something on the Horse before 23 April 1490, for on that day he noted in a new notebook, now Paris MS C, ‘Chomincai questo libro e richomincai il cavallo’ – ‘I began this book and I began again on the horse.’ Elsewhere there is a note of payment: ‘On 28 April I received from the Marchesino [Ludovico’s treasurer Marchesino Stanga] 103 lire.’ The missing year is probably 1490, thus five days after the note in MS C, and plausibly referring to an official payment connected with the Sforza Horse, on which he was now setting to work in earnest.111

The antecedents of this great but ultimately fruitless venture go back to the late 1460s, when the idea of a giant equestrian statue to honour Francesco Sforza was first mooted. News of the project had buzzed around the Florentine studios: there is a design for the statue by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, now in Munich. Leonardo himself first voiced his interest in the Horse in his ‘prospectus’ addressed to Ludovico in 1482. By then he had a smattering of experience, as he had probably assisted in the planning stages of Verrocchio’s equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni: a sheet at Windsor has a proportional analysis of a horse which is certainly connected with the Colleoni project.112 Verrocchio’s last years were devoted to this great work, erected in Venice. The question of its influence on Leonardo is complicated: he had probably not seen the sculpture itself (there is no evidence that he had visited Venice by this stage) but it must have been there in his mind, the yardstick by which his own efforts must be measured – all the more so, perhaps, after the death of his old master in 1488, with the statue unfinished, leaving the field open to the pupil who had always sought to ‘go beyond’ him.

How does Leonardo envisage the Horse as he begins drawing up plans and designs in the last months of 1489? The short answer is that, typically, he envisages it as different from anything that has gone before. There were four famous equestrian statues in Italy – the Marcus Aurelius in Rome, dating from the second century AD; the slightly later classical sculpture called Il Regisole in Pavia; Donatello’s statue of the condottiere Gattamelata in Padua, done in the mid-1450s; and Verrocchio’s Colleoni monument in Venice, still unfinished. Without exception they showed the horse walking or trotting. In each case the horse had its left foreleg raised, to suggest its forward motion, and the other hoofs rested on the plinth. In contrast to this norm, the earliest drawings for the Sforza Horse show that Leonardo envisaged it dramatically rearing up. The finest of these is the study in metalpoint on blue prepared paper at Windsor, elegant and full of energy, though Clark – a particular expert on Leonardo’s horse studies – finds the modelling less ‘full and learned’ than later studies.113

The chief problem with this design is technical – how to support the enormous weight of a large bronze horse with only its rear legs grounded on the base. The drawing attempts a solution: a fallen enemy beneath the horse’s front hoofs. On another page is a more perfunctory sketch, with a tree-stump beneath the rearing horse.114 But the problem of stability remains: the concept is dramatic but impractical, and perhaps this is the reason for Ludovico’s misgivings about Leonardo, as reported by Ambassador Alamanni: ‘He is not confident that he will succeed.’

Leonardo soon abandoned this idea, and the next phase of drawings shows the horse in the more conventional trotting pose. This rethink seems to have been inspired by his viewing of the Regisole in Pavia in June 1490. The train of thoughts set off by this sculpture is preserved on a sheet in the Codex Atlanticus. At the top of this page he writes five sentences, each beginning with a new line, so they have the look of maxims or sententiae. They sound like them too, but one feels they are maxims he has just made up, as he stands in awe before the Regisole and ideas fizz in his head in connection with his own horse, which he had ‘begun again’ a couple of months earlier. The page is cropped at the top, so the first line has been lost (one can see the remnant of it). It perhaps mentioned another equestrian monument, which would explain the abrupt beginning of the next line, which is now the first:

The one in Pavia is to be praised most of all for its movement.

It is more praiseworthy to imitate antiquities than modern things.

Beauty and utility cannot go together, as is shown in castles and in men.

The trot has almost the quality of a free horse.

Where natural vivacity is missing we must supply it artificially.

On the same folio he did a small sketch of a trotting horse, doubtless inspired by the Regisole: this is perhaps the first drawing in this new phase in the design of the Sforza Horse.115

It was not, of course, only sculptural models that Leonardo consulted. From this period comes a series of vibrant studies of horses quite obviously done from life – sleek, ponderous animals, rippling with vitality (Plate 16). We are reminded of a personal source for the Sforza Horse: Leonardo’s lifelong love of horses, Leonardo the rider. The horses he drew were from the stables of the young Milanese courtier and soldier Galeazzo Sanseverino, who was soon to improve his fortunes by marrying one of Ludovico’s illegitimate daughters. Leonardo refers particularly to ‘Messer Galeazzo’s big jennet’, called Siciliano.116

The trotting horse as exemplified by the Regisole in Pavia was almost certainly the pose adopted for the clay model of the Sforza Horse which was eventually made in about 1493. We don’t know for sure because the model was destroyed, and the sculpture itself was never cast: it is another of Leonardo’s unfinished projects. Even his failures have a kind of magic about them, however, and half a century later the writer Pietro Aretino will say of a sculptor’s plans to make an equestrian statue, ‘He would have made a cast of the horse in such a way that Leonardo’s at Milan would no longer be talked of’ – implying that Leonardo’s model was still being ‘talked of’ long after its destruction.117 But these later phases – the creation and destruction of the Horse – belong to a later chapter.

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