Leonardo da Vinci scholars have been puzzling over the origins of a bronze statuette of a rearing horse for nearly a century. In 1916 the similarities of the Rearing Horse and Mounted Warrior to Leonardo’s drawings led a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, which owns the work, to argue that the horse and rider, once thought to be an ancient Greek sculpture, was actually a Renaissance bronze, cast from a clay or wax model fashioned by the hands of the master himself. As in the case of most Leonardo claims, the attribution has never been universally accepted and study and debate are ongoing.
Recently, conservators at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. conducted extensive studies on the horse that yielded new technical evidence they say supports the possibility that it was cast from an original Leonardo model. “It doesn’t prove it was Leonardo,” said curator Alison Luchs, “but it lends weight to the idea.”
Museum conservators Shelley Sturman and Katherine May used computer models, reproductions of drawings by Leonardo, alloy analysis and x-radiographs to examine the materials and methods used to create the 10-inch-tall bronze horse. The scientific evidence suggests that the casting could have been as early as the 16th century, though perhaps after Leonardo’s death in 1519. The alloy and casting technique are characteristic of Renaissance methods, though similar methods were also used later.
Although no undisputed sculpture by Leonardo survives, historians of his time reported that he made small models as studies for his sculptures and paintings. He once scribbled a note on one of his sketches to make a small wax version of one of his drawings of a horse. He also labored for years over drawings for what was to be a 24-foot statue of a horse for Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan. Scholars cite the artist’s sketches of rearing and twisting horses as significant evidence to support the Budapest attribution theory. The horse, which resembles the writhing stallions in Leonardo’s famous but now long-lost mural The Battle of Anghiari , squats low on its haunches in a wide stance with front legs raised, a seemingly impossible feat for a real horse. “The unnatural pose of the horse suggests someone experimenting and working out a way to do this audacious pose,” Luchs said.
The research also shows that the bronze was cast in a way that allowed preservation of the model. Of course, no one knows its whereabouts today, but the museum researchers believe “the model was not destroyed during casting, as in many cases, suggesting that it was treasured or unique,” Luchs said.
This Leonardo mystery, like others, is likely to go unsolved. “Very respected people have come to opposite conclusions,” Luchs admitted. Some say the piece lacks the signature energy of a Leonardo drawing or perhaps the model was created by someone who studied his drawings or small models. The public can explore for itself the case of the Budapest horse when it goes on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta as part of the Leonardo da Vinci: Hand of the Genius exhibition October 6, 2009 through February 21, 2010. Originals of Leonardo’s drawings will accompany the statue. The bronze will also be in the Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture: Inspiration and Invention at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, March 23 to June 20, 2010.
Across Africa, Finding Common Ground in Their Art
António Ole , 57, from Angola, and Aimé Mpane , 40, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, created multimedia installations as part of an artistic dialogue on view at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. The exhibition, on view through August 2, is the first in a series from the museum in which contemporary artists are asked to create work in response to each other.
The pair spoke about their individual work and the collaborative process with Smithsonian ’s Joseph Caputo.
Why is this dialogue important?
Mpane : The human being doesn’t live alone--he lives in contact. You will not progress if you’re just by yourself. You must have a dialogue anyhow and anywhere. In Africa there’s dialogue all the time, especially when things are going wrong. We don’t have therapists, we have the whole extended family and we put a matter to anyone who’ll provide a word on it. Then we must find a solution. This very act of creating together is an example of how to develop new ideas.
Before this exhibit, you barely knew one another. What kind of ground did you have for conversation?
Ole : I think this conversation happened because we are neighbors. We share a big border north of Angola and south of Congo. There are a lot of people that are part of the same ethnic group that barely respond to this division. This is the consequence of the Berlin Conference  that divided Africa into these straight lines that most of the time divided families. From this we started sharing ideas.
What has this dialogue taught you?
Ole : I don’t think artists know everything. The most important thing is sharing experiences. It’s an immense pleasure to work with Aimé because, even though he comes from another generation than mine, I have the impression that he’s a good human being, putting humanity inside his painting and sculpture. I also learn a lot from him. I’m not capable of doing what he does. I think I’ve become richer after this meeting.
What story does the exhibit’s dialogue tell?
Mpane : Of course, there’s a story because you have to start from nothing to arrive at this point. When I arrived, I came with a definite idea, but the final result was the product of conversation, negotiation and experiencing together. So, if you take a close look at the wall. On Antonio’s side you just see one sign: Open. It’s a very clear message. Just enter, open your mind. We created an opening to each other.
How is your work shaped by life in Africa?
Mpane : I was asked by a University of Maryland student, ‘What kind of piece are you going to do tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Even before thinking about tomorrow, let’s live the moment.’ I believe that to think like that comes from living in poverty or exposed to poverty. Those conditions enable me to live with a lot of intensity and not think about tomorrow. That’s what you see in the exhibition. That’s what I do with my art.
One of the stereotypes about Africa is that there is only bad news. How does your art work against that stereotype?
Ole : For me, this is an important issue, because if something positive happens, the press never pays attention.
Mpane : It’s true that we only mention the negative aspect of this country and that’s a reality. But every civilization has gone through difficult periods. I try to be positive and make something with what I have. Even in a place where there is nothing, we will still produce art. It makes us stronger.