My horse for the Duchy

Leonardo's Horse – San Siro Hippodrome

Before the Last Supper, the projects for the canals, the drawings of the Duomo cupola or his flying machines, Leonardo introduced himself to the Duke of Milano, Ludovico il Moro, with a letter that is actually one of the world’s first CVs.


In ten points, Leonardo invited the Duke to put him to the test. Nine of these points involve military attack and defence, with fighting vehicles, cannons, mobile bridges, trebuchets and secret tunnels. Only one point concerned the architecture and hydraulics that would make Milano more beautiful and efficient in times of peace. It also mentioned painting, sculpture and an immortal monument: a majestic bronze horse to celebrate the Duke's father, Francesco Sforza, who had brought the family to power. 


Details count, especially when in strategic places. This CV was obviously successful, and though he came for war, Leonardo remained for peace. He was the new costume artist and choreographer of extravagant gala parties of the Sforza court, and his first assignment was the magnificent bronze equestrian statue. He would work on it on several occasions over the years, and worried about it to the point that it disturbed his sleep.


Leonardo filled countless sheets with drawings, anatomical studies, sketches and notes about movement as he sat in the Duke’s stables at the Sforzesco Castle and, years later, at the Castle of Vigevano, contemplating the most beautiful horses of his time. The work was truly challenging: he had to combine artistic inspiration and technical expertise to form a statue weighing 150 tons that was supposed to be 8 metres tall - the largest equestrian statue in the world. After years of design and labour, the terracotta prototype would be displayed for all to see in the courtyard of what now is Palazzo Reale, applauded and celebrated by the entire city.


However, war was threatening Milano, and the bronze set aside for the statue was instead cast into weapons and cannons to use in battle. Leonardo, heartbroken, wrote in his notes, “I shall never speak of the Horse again”. 


Centuries later, Leonardo's dream would be adopted by Charles Dent, an American pilot and art collector with a passion for the Renaissance. In 1977, Dent read an article in National Geographic magazine titled “The horse that never was” and he began his romantic quest to make Leonardo's Horse a reality, with a dedicated crowdfunding programme that collected money for years. 


The circle closed in 1999 when the colossal statue was brought to Milano. It was made by Japanese artist Nina Akamu, and stands proudly in front of the San Siro Hippodrome. It looks like a giant metaphysical painting: an enormous riderless bronze beast, prancing before the Art Decò arches of a great palace - its front leg raised, ready to charge.


Trivia: Leonardo's Horse is the symbol of the Milano International Film Festival awards (MIFF), dedicated to independent international films.