The Broader Picture: Leonardo's latest

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The Independent Culture
THIS NOBLE steed has been half a millennium in the making. Its history begins with Leonardo da Vinci who, in 1482, was commissioned by his then-patron, Lodovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, to create the largest equestrian statue that had ever existed. Leonardo spent 16 years working on preliminary sketches before creating a full-size (24ft high) clay model, from which moulds were made. The horse was to be cast in bronze - all in one piece, apart from the head - and would weigh 72 tons.

But when the French army threatened Milan in 1499, Sforza commandeered the bronze intended for the horse, and used it instead for cannon. "Of the horse," wrote Leonardo, "I say nothing, for I know what times these are." When the state fell in September of that year, he fled. The French archers used the clay horse for target practice, and the weather finished it off.

That was that, until 1977, when an American, Charles Dent, saw some of Leonardo's sketches of the horse, or "Il Cavallo", in National Geographic. An art collector, amateur sculptor and Italophile, he decided to take the work to its conclusion - to recreate and cast the horse and present it as a gift from the United States to the people of Italy. He set up a company, "Leonardo da Vinci's Horse, Inc", which raised $4m, and built a studio on his farm, working with a small team of sculptors to carve the eight-foot model. From this, the full-scale plaster model was made. When Dent died in 1994 the work went on, most recently under the direction of Nina Akamu (pictured above, with some of Leonardo's sketches).

The statue is now near to completion. It will be cast in seven pieces in 20 tons of bronze and transported to Italy, where it will be assembled around a steel skeleton. On 10 September, 500 years to the day since the French invasion, the horse will be set on its pedestal and presented to the city of Milan.

So soon after the unveiling of the restored The Last Supper, a final point should be made. Although many of Leonardo's sketches of horses survive, there was no final design for "Il Cavallo". And, without the master's eye, it can only be a vague interpretation of the near-mythical original. But perhaps that is simply to look a gift horse in the mouth.