Spectacular Ambition: The Failure and Reception of Leonardo da Vinci’s Equestrian Monument to Francesco Sforza
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
At the close of the fifteenth century, a drastic change in political circumstances compelled Leonardo da Vinci to swiftly leave Milan. His patron, Lodovico Sforza, had been run out by the invading French army, who made quick work of exiling and executing Sforza’s inner circle. Leonardo abandoned the career he had established in Milan to return to Florence, with an even greater number of unfinished projects than he had already left behind in the Tuscan city. Yet now the artist brought with him a reputation of spectacular ambition, for he famously designed a colossal equestrian monument for the Duke of Milan. This great unfinished behemoth would have besmirched the career of many contemporaries, and certainly the artists who came before him, but somehow the greatest unfinished project of Leonardo’s career became a powerful symbol of the artist’s potential, exemplifying the evolving criteria for evaluating artists and their work.
My dissertation is a study in the reception of an idea, traced in the archives and through the history of art. We have traditionally accepted the Sforza monument as feasible, demonstrative of Leonardo’s skill in sculpture, and defined by four essential characteristics: cast in a single piece, highly naturalistic, first designed to be rearing then walking, and meant to be a bronze colossus. By inverting the traditional approach to Leonardo, I model a new methodology that allows us to see how different orders of knowledge have commingled to serve the mythology of Leonardo. I delineate primary sources from secondary sources and into further categories within, establishing a hierarchical typology of historical documents. I focus my analysis on the primary sources, carefully presenting and analyzing them. All documents discussed are presented in an organized and complete manner in the appendix. The primary sources have heretofore seen less attention than the engaging early secondary sources, which weave a compelling narrative of a lost masterpiece. To study Leonardo is to understand how he broke convention yet remained exceptional despite the new norms he helped to establish. What emerges from my dissertation challenges the ongoing efforts made by historians and admirers alike to vivify what was, and always will be, an ephemeral wonder.
Chair and Committee
William E. Wallace
Daniel Bornstein, Nathaniel Jones, Angela Miller, Michael Sherberg,
Hanson, Emily Jean, "Spectacular Ambition: The Failure and Reception of Leonardo da Vinci’s Equestrian Monument to Francesco Sforza" (2021). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2494.
Available for download on Wednesday, August 19, 2026
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