Deciphering the da Vinci code

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Was the little bronze horse really made by Leonardo da Vinci?

For nearly a century, curators at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary, believed the equine sculpture in their collection was probably modeled by the great Renaissance artist. Seeking to know more about the statuette, they sent it to the National Gallery of Art where conservators analyzed the casting and compared it to similar artworks.

The results of this six-month investigation are presented in a fascinating exhibition at the National Gallery focused on the complicated forensics of reproducible bronze sculptures. While inconclusive as to whether the “Rearing Horse” is a work by Leonardo, the show provides fascinating insight into the painstaking process of attribution through visual and scientific evidence.

For those visitors patient enough to read the extensive wall texts, the narrative unfolds like a mystery story in explaining the clues gathered from the Renaissance bronze and two variants of the small sculpture. This detective work was undertaken by conservators Shelley Sturman and Katherine May and curator of early European sculpture Alison Luchs as part of the National Gallery’s ongoing research project into Renaissance bronzes.

That the small horse could have been modeled by Leonardo is an exciting possibility, since no undisputed sculpture by the artist survives. He attempted to produce two bronze equestrian statues for the city of Milan but neither was completed (a re-creation of one of the sculptures, originally intended for da Vinci’s patron Duke Ludovico Sforza, was erected in Milan a decade ago).

In the past, Leonardo’s drawings of his proposed monuments and his other tiny sketches of horses supplied the primary evidence for attributing the Budapest sculpture to him. Ms. Sturman and her team reached beyond these visual associations to prove the casting methods and metal alloys used to create the bronze are consistent with sculpture from the 15th and 16th centuries.

That is not to say da Vinci made the sculpture. “We have no documentation that Leonardo was ever successful in casting in bronze,” says Ms. Sturman. “But the Budapest horse could have been a trial cast for one of his Milan monuments so it wasn’t written up [in documents].”

The small horse’s rearing pose certainly reflects the artist’s structural ingenuity: Its crouching hind legs and lowered rump concentrate the center of gravity over the rear hooves so no external support is needed to hold up the raised front legs.

Otherwise, the lifted legs would have to be braced by another object such as the small sculpture of a crouching warrior shown in the exhibit. Leonardo probably toyed with this idea since such a supportive figure is depicted in an engraving of his designs for one of the Milanese equestrian monuments. The warrior casting on display may be based on a wax model made in his workshop.

Did the Budapest horse have a rider? Probably not. A small figure of a helmeted warrior from the Hungarian museum, also on display, is ruled out as part of the equine sculpture for several reasons, including the absence of a saddle.

One telling clue is the trapezoidal opening cut into the rump of the horse for introducing and removing the core material around which the bronze was cast. If the horse was meant to accommodate a figure, it would have made more sense to locate this cutout on the animal’s back where it would have been covered by the rider.

Even without such embellishments, the small bronze horse came to be admired by other artists. One sculptor even copied its hatch detail in a work now belonging to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Was this New York horse directly modeled on the Budapest sculpture?

Using laser scans and computer modeling, the National Gallery team compared the dimensions and details between the two to conclude that the New York horse was probably cast in molds from the Budapest bronze. Alterations were then made to the tail and legs, and a dark brown patina was applied to simulate a Renaissance bronze finish.

A smaller rearing horse sculpture from the Hunt Museum in Limerick, Ireland, was similarly compared to the Budapest bronze. “These comparisons are essential,” says Ms. Luchs. “When you can find patterns in terms of production practices and alloys, it helps you to find out where the bronzes fit in.”

Further analysis of the metals in both the New York and Limerick horses showed them to be made in more recent times. The Metropolitan Museum sculpture’s thin metal walls and soldering used to attach the tail indicate it probably dates to the 19th century.

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