Questions concerning the equestrian statue in remembrance of the Condottiere Bartolemeo Colleoni in Venice created in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio

By Rizah Kulenovic and Fredrik von Platen

The famous equestrian statue in Venice in front of the church of San Giovanni e Paolo is a work of art from Andrea del Verrocchio´s workshop. In 1479, the state of Venice proclaimed a competition bet­ween sculptures with the aim of creating a memorial monument of Bartolemeo Colleoni in the form of an equestrian statue.

In 1483, Andrea del Verrocchio was chosen as a winner of the competition along with two other artists. The two others, history tells us, were Bartolomeo Vellano from Padua and Alessandro Leo­pardi from Venice. When Verrocchio died in 1488, it is said that a master model in clay was ready for the foundry. The statue was not inaugurated until 1496. It is said that Alessandro Leopardi, his former com­petitor, was given a commission to finish the project.

The base of the statue has the signature of Leopardi – sculptor and arch­itect -, whose family was owner of a fam­ous bronze foundry in Venice. So there was more than one reason for turning to the Leopardi-family. It is also said that it was Verrocchio’s last will that Lorenzo di Credi, not famous as a sculptor, would finish the project. Lorenzo who was an apprentice of Verrocchio at the same time as Leonardo was a beloved pupil at the workshop.

But, why did Leonardo da Vinci not get the commission? He was without doubt involved in the workshop during the period of competition. One reason may be that by this time (around 1482), Leonardo had already moved to the republic of Milan, where he wanted or was promised to create statues, weapons, bridges etc. and have possibilities to realize some of his inventions.

The Colleoni equestrian statue in Venice in details

The horse model in Kulenovic Collection in Karlskrona, Sweden

Periods in life of Leonardo da Vinci remain hidden in darkness. He is said to be hard-working with notebooks on subjects as art, different sciences, anatomy, meteorology, technical things etc. The period of roughly ten years that Leonardo was an apprentice in Verrocchio´s workshop is not as well do­cumented in pictures and texts as his time in Milan. The Madrid Codices rediscovered in 1966 have thrown new light on his “un­known” life and astonishing versatility. We have a feeling that older Leonardo-research, prior to 1966, and subsequent Leonardo-research, remains uncoordi­nat­ed and incompatible. Older claims, based on pre-1966-research, block the view of new knowledge becoming generally ac­cep­ted.

The very young Leonardo arrived to Verrocchio´s workshop in Florence in the latter part of the decade of the 1460s.  His time as apprentice with his master and mentor ended 1476. Already in 1472 Leonardo was admitted in the artist´s society in Florence. Leonardo lived close to Verrocchio until he left for Milan 1482.

We think that it is important and will turn attention to the performance of a work­shop such as Verrocchio´s, which can be seen as a firm, analogous to an archi­tect’s firm. There is the owner, a famous archi­tect, as a main figure, who has his name in the firm name. But most people know that the firm-owner must have a lot of talented co-workers to be able to realize all the di­ff­e­rent commissions. The owner himself is more or less a quality scrutinizer. Andrea del Verrocchio has a name of very high esteem and he is said to have had too many irons in the fire. For a young artist, it was a feather in his cap to be accepted as an assistant in a workshop such as master Verrocchio´s. If you succeeded you could more or less be sure about getting money for your efforts, not just room and food, and after that a kind of establishing-grant in order to make it easier to start a work­shop of your own. Among Verrocchio’s pupils there are, Lorenzo di Credi, men­tioned above, as well as Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and perhaps Michelangelo. Verrocchio becomes a godfather for young artists he liked in the culturally and economically flowering Florence at the time. He liked Leonardo more than the others.

Different documents indicate that Leonardo was a young artist and colleague and that Verrocchio took good care of him, depending on his brilliance in different ways. Even after Leonardo opened a small workshop of his own, around 1476, it is obvious they often were seeing each other. They were living in the same neigh­borhood and belonged to the same socie­ty of artists in Florence.

Our view is that Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci collaborated during the period of competition for the Colleoni-statue in Venice.  To our mind there are two fundaments to support this view.

The first fundament, also mentioned by others, and found in books on Leonardo after 1970, is about all the studies and sketches of horses which, without any doubt, have the provenance of Leonardo´s hand: anatomical measurement-studies, numerous images of horses without rider, and a horse and a rider as an ensemble. There are sketches about different more or less monumental horse steps, possible for a horse, and the way the legs are lifted in frozen movement, as found in a dress­age-riders performance. These studies Leonardo later repeated in his work as advisor in Milan, where a horse statue was under discussion.

The pioneering aspect in his horse and rider sketches for a statue was the way in how the horse demon­stra­tively lifts one front leg and turns the head. Everything is anatomically correct and gives expression to the horse, with the purpose of making a great impression. The studies Leonardo made of horses, joint by joint or muscle by muscle, are made in the same period that Verrocchio was competing for the Colleoni-monu­ment. Leonardo made sketches from horse heads with aggressively wide-open nostrils. The same expression is found in the statue in Venice. The likenesses bet­ween the sketches for the different equestrian statues during his time in Milan and Verrocchios Colleonimonument in Venice are obvious for everybody.

The expression in the face of Colleoni in Venice bears traces of the same expressions found in Leonardo´s fighting face studies, such as the chalk- sketches for The Battle of Anghiari and others. Every authority on Leonardo knows that he would never descend him­self to make co­pies of others work of art. Not even Verroccios´, still he was Leonardo’s ´ men­tor. According to our theory it must has been well known that Leonardo was behind the entry from Verrocchio´s workshop. But, why wasn´t he pointed out as the one to complete the work after Verrocchio´s dead 1488? We think that it would not be popular at all to let a person, who was in the arch-enemy’s pay, complete the monument.

Measurement studies from a lifted front leg of a horse by Leonardo da Vinci

Study of a warriors face by Leonardo

The second fundament is about Leonardo´s highly innovative interests in how to found in bronze. The Madrid Codices (rediscovered in 1966), contain sketches which show, step by step, how to found a horse in a bronze-saving way. It is very likely that Leonardo discussed it with Verrocchio during the same years of the competition. At the time, bronze was a very expensive alloy, which could also be used for making canons. It is a rather heavy metal, and in making big statues the self-weight, and different ways of lower it, is of great importance – con­structively – especially if the horse does not use all his legs for putting the weight into the funda­ment. Perhaps, in addition to the monu­mental and artistic qualities of Verrocchio´s statue, the bronze-saving cast­ing process played a role in his be­coming a winner in the competition.
A relatively well-conserved, but well-used, working bronze model of the Venice-horse from Verrocchio’s workshop is found in The Kulenovic Collection in Karlskrona, Sweden. It has the appearances of an object used partly to show the rider less horse and partly, and more likely, to illu­strate the way of dividing the horse’s body, and how this division can be hidden by the saddle girth. The model shows, as Leonardo says, that the tail will be cast afterwards and put into a hole in the rump. The rider too will be cast after­wards, - Leonardo has written down.  The model also reveals something else. At the same height as the hole in the rump there is another hole in the breast of the model. It is very likely that these holes were used to insert a tension beam in order to press together the two halves of the horse. The hole in the breast is hidden by parts of the harness of the horse that the rider is hol­ding in his hands.

Why did Leonardo want the horse to be divided into two parts during the casting process, as he illustrates in his sketches? We think that this results from Leonardo´s -  further developed, casting method, now known as the lost wax (cire perdue) meth­od. We illustrate the method step by step in order to make clearer Leonardo´s ideas. Without dividing the horse, it would be im­­possible to remove the temporary con­struction within the horse, which makes possible thinner casting.

One of many drawing of a equestrian sculpture by Leonardo

Horse study in a founder form and dividing into the two-piece body, according to a drawing from Leonardo

In “Leonardo the Artist,” by the art historians, Anna Maria Brizio, Maria Vittoria Brugnoli and André Chastel, published in 1980, they have tried to decipher Leonardo’s special handwriting according to his pictures in  above men­tioned Madrid Codices. In some cases, the authors did not understand everything that Leonardo described, since they did not have the advan­tage we have had of looking at the model in The Kulenovic Collection.
Our view is that Leonardo da Vinci was deeply involved in the making and deve­lop­ment of the Colleoni monument in Venice. The horse model at The Kulenovic Collection in Karlskrona is likely to have served as a working model at the foundry of Leopardi in Venice around 1495.  The model is well used and has traces from foundry-sand and burnt gild.

Leonardo has always been famous for the construction of a monumental horse in the courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan that, history says, was destroyed by French soldiers of François I in 1498. The discovery of the Madrid Codices seemed to provide new details concerning this horse. The codices, read in conjunction with the evidence of the model horse in the Kulenovic Collection, lead to the conclusion that Leonardo is connected with two famous horses: one in Venice, the other formerly in Milan. Leonardo has also been accused of being only an abstract thinker who was all theory and no practice. The horse gives us the first physical evidence of Leonardo as a practical artist-engineeer.

It would be interesting to make investigations on the statue in Venice and perhaps find the skirt between the two halves un­der the saddle strap at the bronze horse, or the hole in the breast for the tension-member during the casting process, then hidden under harness.

Reconstruction of Leonardo´s method

The model made in two pieces at The Kulenovic Collection in Karlskrona, Sweden. Height to the head is about 25 cm. A hole in the rump and in the chest for pulling the two halves together will sooner be hidden under the tail and the harness.

The horse model dismounted into two piece

Museum The Kulenovic Collection

Stortorget 5
Phone +46 0455 25573