We never discuss Leonardo da Vinci’s name when it comes to Renaissance sculpture. And why would we? He left no famous sculptures! So it may surprise you to learn that Leonardo spent 17 years (nearly a third of his life) working on a single sculpture; during which time he didn't paint very much for a man we recall posthumously for being such a great painter.
The sculpture in question was The Equstrian Monument to Francesco Sforza, commissioned in 1482 when Leonardo was 30 years old by the Duke of Milan (Ludovico Sforza). It was meant to be the largest equestrian statue in the world. When finished it would be over 24 feet tall and weigh over 75 tons of solid bronze. Easily twice the size of any other equestrian monument of that era, it would require great ingenuity to make it a reality. Unfortunately it took Leonardo so long to theorize and plan that eventually, when war came to Milan in the form of a French invasion, the 75 tons of bronze which had been set aside for the project were requisitioned to create artillery cannons.
Had he completed his Equestrian Monument it’s likely that today we’d be discussing Leonardo alongside Michelangelo as the two greatest sculptors of the Renaissance. He'd have influenced countless sculptors who came after him and Western sculpture as we know it would almost certainly have been altered unimaginably, splitting in two factions: those adhering to the Michelangelesque (think powerful and imposing masculine figures, imbued with regal and titanic pathos) and those more inclined towards the Leonardesque (think beauty and refinement over power and physicality; but not at their expense). Instead we don't even seriously consider Leonardo when we think of sculpture. The more one considers the enormity of the time he spent on the project - 17 years! - the more apparent it becomes that this unrealized sculpture is one of the great tragedies of Western art.
Leonardo left behind just one mural (the Last Supper) and about a dozen (some say 10, some argue as many as 15, bona fide) paintings. The Last Supper - which was the first to become truly widely known - was begun when he was already 42 years old; shortly after the bronze which had been set aside for his horse had already been requisitioned and the duke realized he'd better give Leonardo another assignment. The Last Supper, as magnificent as it was, began to deteriorate almost as soon as it was completed because he didn't have experience with mural painting, which required the fresco technique, and therefore tried combining methods and materials that shouldn't be used together. Because he couldn't paint 'al fresco' he tried instead to use tempera and oil-paint; materials with which he was familiar from his years as an apprentice, on a prepared, flakey plaster. The results were predictably both delicate and temporary.
But here's a truth: the world doesn't ACTUALLY remember and revere Leondardo for his paintings. Not any more. Since the 19th century his reputation hasn't been based on his handful of finished works but instead on the 1,000’s of pages of sketches, drawings, scientific and anatomical studies, lists, notes, and engineering diagrams he recorded in his notebooks. Most of those pages sat unlooked-at for centuries; forgotten amongst millions of sheets of drawings in the royal collections of England. It has been lamented they weren't published 300 years earlier because they represent such an advance over the science and observation of his day that we might literally be living in a profoundly more futuristic society had some of his thoughts and theories gone mainstream earlier. In other words on a scale of 1 - 10 of "how important is this thing" the sketchbooks are an 11.
His unfortunate 17-year-journey down the rabbit hole chasing ONE sculpture must be a major factor in why he finished so few paintings in his life (just a dozen paintings in over 50 years of working as an artist is a really terrible record wouldn't you say?) despite being an accomplished and acknowledged painter at a very early age. The art historian Vasari relates a famous tale that while still a youth in the workshop of his master, Florentine sculptor and painter Verrocchio, a young Leonardo assisted on a painting where the parts he finished were so much more refined and accomplished than his teacher’s own painted bits, that Verrocchio quit painting on the spot, vowing never again to touch a brush having ‘been outdone by one so young.’
That painting is at the Uffizi today (see below). LD painted the head of the angel on the lower left and parts of the background. His passages positively glow with light. From that day forward Verrocchio is said to have turned his hands only to sculpture. And that's the point.
Verrocchio, who was Leonardo's master, is considered a more accomplished sculptor than painter. As a Florentine Master sculptor literally halfway between Donatello and Michelangelo both temporally and stylistically, Verrocchio is considered the stop-gap between early renaissance and high renaissance sculpture. He was without exaggeration the greatest sculptor of Florence (a city famous for sculpture) during his professional lifetime. All of which is to illustrate that Leonardo trained with a famous sculptor... not a famous painter. Is it coincidence that he trained with a sculptor and then spent 17 years working on a single sculpture? Or... you know... did he maybe want to be a sculptor?
We know Leonardo could paint, even in his youth, at least as well as the established adult masters of his era. We also know from the Vasari anecdote that he quickly surpassed them as he matured. Yet from the age of 30 until he was 42, Leonardo’s primary focus seems to have been sculpture and designing all manner of clever 'pageantry' for the Duke's court. From 30 to 42 is a long time! In his own words from a letter seeking employment, Leonardo was trained, "no less in sculpture than in painting, being equally adept at one and the other." Yet we never consider him as a sculptor.
His master Verrocchio’s busy workshop created many famous bronze statues; either as public commissions or else to adorn the homes of powerful families. In the center of that workshop bustle, for fully 10 years (longer than most because he voluntarily stayed on) was the young Leonardo. Hence Leo would have been well versed in all aspects of the sculptor’s craft.
The deeper you dig, the more it appears sculpture was Leonardo’s original muse while he lived in Milan. The Last Supper wasn’t begun until he was 42 (completed when he was 45). The cartoon for the Madonna and Child (see below), was publicly shown in Florence circa 1501 and created a massive buzz; and was made when he was already 47.
The Mona Lisa was started when he was 51 (and he worked on it for the rest of his life). The point being - he doesn’t begin painting in earnest; not MOST of the paintings we remember him for today; until he’s in his 40’s despite possessing the talent since his early teens.
It's important to keep in mind that we of the modern era live luxuriously long lives and that one’s 40’s were considered late middle age… nearly old age… in Renaissance Italy. Your 20's and 30's were your prime. Then, as now, if an artist spent their prime years avoiding a certain medium, we'd logically conclude it to be a conscious decision. And that's what we have with Leonardo. A conscious decision not to paint. Much.
It is not until his colossal failure with the bronze horse, after 17 years, to never produce more than a clay model (subsequently destroyed when the French invaded Milan and their archers used it for target practice) that Leonardo once again turns himself 'seriously' to painting. And he almost immediately begins 're-branding' himself as exclusively a painter, and not a sculptor... famously declaring that sculpture "is of lesser genius than painting." He goes out of his way to mock and ridicule sculptors for being dishevelled (from sweat and toil); filthy (with clay and dust); lesser (and presumably less cultured) artists. This was a blatant dig against Michelangelo who, 20 years younger, was already a better sculptor than Leonardo; as well as formidable competition as both a draftsman and painter (of fresco no less, which was considered the manliest and most msaculine of painting techniques). When Leonardo left Milan after the French invasion they were both living in Florence from 1500 - 1503; pitted against one another in a contest engineered by Machiavelli to decorate the town hall.
Today we think of Leonardo as almost a demi-god; something like a mashup of Einstein, Steve Jobs and a real-life Merlin the magician who could draw better than anyone who ever lived and had a kick-ass beard. But the most amazing thing about our veneration of Leonardo - the thing about our respect that even he would be surprised by - is that it's not based AT ALL upon what he - at the height of his genius and creative powers - likely intended for us to know him for! It's a tragedy that we never think of Leonardo when we think of sculpture. He wanted us to. For many years he believed he'd cement his name in history -finally - with a single sculpture. There's a great lesson here (or several!) about everything happening for a reason; about 2nd chances; about switching focus mid-career... Leonardo did it all, and never ceases to instruct and amaze!