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Studies of Horses' Legs

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
(Vinci 1452 – 1519 Amboise)

Date: ca. 1490
Medium: black chalk on paper
Dimensions: 213 × 145 mm
Classification: drawing
Inventory Number: 1776
Department: Prints and Drawings

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Studies of Horses' Legs

Leonardo was thirty when he left Florence and travelled to Milan, where he soon received important commissions from his generous patron, Lodovico Sforza. This was a time that saw the birth not only of the Virgin of the Rocks, the Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness in the Vatican, and the now damaged but still enthralling Last Supper, but also the famous Sforza Horse, which has been destroyed, but which was greatly admired by his contemporaries.

Shortly after his arrival in the city, Leonardo started working on the equestrian statue of Lodovico's father, a condottiere who became the duke of Milan, and the artist spent more than fifteen years on it. The first drawings reveal that he planned a rearing horse, but he later reverted to the traditional striding posture, partly because the duke urged him to finish, and partly because he himself realised the ambitious plan was unfeasible. Although he progressed slowly, the guests at the wedding of the duke's niece, Bianca Sforza, and Emperor Maximilian I in 1493 could already admire the colossal clay model. Leonardo was at the time hard at work preparing the bronze casting, which, however, was finally impeded by the duke's fall. Lodovico first lent the accumulated bronze to his father-in-law, Ercole d'Este, to cast cannons in Ferrara, and was soon after forced to flee the incoming French forces. The archers of Gascogne used the clay horse, which was left in the castle yard, as a practice target. It later fell apart as it was transported to Ferrara.

Although the clay model was destroyed, quite a number of the drawings Leonardo made for the monument have survived. The quick sketches he made of the horses in the famous Milan stable, the meticulously elaborated anatomic and proportion studies, the figures and instructions prepared for the transport and casting of the vast clay model, allow a fairly accurate notion of what the sculpture would have been like. If the last version of the Sforza Horse owed much to Verrocchio's equestrian statue of Colleoni in Venice, it, however, lacked the latter's anxious, exalted tension. Donatello's more serene and dignified Gattamelata in Padova must have been more of a model for Leonardo, as he was probably also influenced by famous antique equestrian statues, like that of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, the horseman of Pavia known as Regisole, and the bronze horses of Saint Mark's Basilica. The horse-leg study kept in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts was made around 1490, in the last phase of the preparatory works, and represents Leonardo's most attractive drawing style. Rendering the horse's front leg lifted off the ground in four views, the vigorous drawing elegantly captures the most essential details of the anatomy, and couples the liveliness of nature studies and a thorough knowledge of horses with an approach that reflects the spatial logic of sculpture. We can also trace Leonardo's working method, as he progressed from light, faint outlines, through several re-workings, to the final form modelled with quick back-and-forth hatching.