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Leonardo da Vinci’s Birthday | The Story of the Failed Colossus

On Leonardo da Vinci's 568th birthday, we look at the sculpture that it took centuries to finish.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, an inventor and artist of some note, was born on this day in in 1452, making this his 568th birthday. 

Da Vinci invented just about everything. He invented awesome war machines like three-barreled cannons, armored cars, robotic knights, and giant crossbows, but also more practical items like parachutes, rotating bridges, flying machines, and scuba gear. Da Vinci was, in many ways an eternal 7-year-old boy with the smarts and the wherewithal to bring his fantasies to life. Many of his inventions rarely left the design stage, but they were all designed on sound engineering principals. 

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Today, however, on the event of the man’s birthday, Crave is going to look back at the da Vinci the artist, and what may considered one of his greatest artistic ambitions. It was so ambitious, in fact, that it wasn’t completed until centuries after his death. We refer to da Vinci’s Colossus. 

In 1482, when da Vinci was already a well-established genius in the Renaissance, he was approached by the Duke of Milan to sculpt him a statue of a horse. The statue he wanted, however, was meant to be the largest horse statue ever built. The Duke also wanted it to be make entirely our of bronze. The request dictated that the statue should be 25 feet tall. 

In order to make a bronze statue of that size, da Vinci had to become innovative. He already knew how to sculpt, and came up with the blueprint rather swiftly. However, in order for the statue not to collapse under its own weight, da Vinci had develop a special layering technique that would ensure that the horse would remain stable throughout its construction; one simply cannot pour that much molten bronze into a giant mould and expect it to hold. He also had to pioneer special smelting and heating techniques to keep that much bronze heated evenly. All this designing and inventing took nearly a decade, and the horse wasn’t even built yet. 

Web Gallery of Art

Web Gallery of Art

Oh yes, and the Colossus would also require 80 tons of bronze to build. Luckily, being the powerful artist he was, da Vinci was granted access to that much metal as part of the commission. The building the the Colossus was explored briefly in the 1991 movie Hudson Hawk, which posited that da Vinci was also experimenting with alchemy to turn lead into bronze in order to produce more raw material.  

But then, of course, everything fell apart. In 1492, King Charles I of England invaded France. France, to retaliate, needed resources and war machines, and The Duke of Milan beagn to fear that French forces would invade. To bribe them, and ensure the French would stay out of Milan, he offered one of the only things he had: 80 tons of bronze. Da Vinci, without the metals he needed to make a 24-foot horse Colossus, discarded the project in frustration. Da Vinci famously wrote “I will speak of the horse no more.”

But the horse would eventually be built. In 1977, a British pilot named Charles Dent started a special non-profit organization designed to complete the Colossus that had remained incomplete for centuries. Dent worked on the project for 17 years amassing funds and gathering resources to ensure that a 24-foot bronze horse could indeed still be built. That’s 27 years in toto of solid design and planning to get this horse off the ground. Dent died in 1994, and, five years thereafter, the horse was finally completed. It cost about $2.5 million. In 1999, the Colossus was gifted to the people of Milan. 

The name of the sculpture is Gran Cavallo. It can be seen at the Hippodrome de San Siro.


Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.