This week I’m seeing and savoring Italy along the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan. Michigan is about an hour drive from where I live and I’ve spent many summers at Michigan beaches and winters on x-country ski trails. But it wasn’t until I started traveling in Italy that I realized Michigan and Italy have a lot in common.

Like Italy Michigan is a peninsula. The northern most region of Michigan is at the 45th parallel – the same as Chianti in Tuscany and although nothing can compare to the vineyards of Italy, the European grape varieties common to Italy happily grow along the shores of Lake Michigan, where the “lake effect” moderates the temperatures. Michigan like Italy is known for its seasonal produce and  farm to table menus and shares Italy’s passion for cultivation and processing techniques inherited from tradition.

At the Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids there’s another Italian-Michigan connection that goes back to the time of the Renaissance.  In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci  designed a monumental horse  to be cast in bronze. Leonardo da Vinci’s horse, the Gran Cavallo, was intended to be the largest equestrian statue in the world, Commissioned in1492 by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, it was never realized. The clay model was destroyed by French soldiers when they invaded Milan in 1499.

A 1967 discovery of da Vinci’s sketchbooks with designs for the 24 foot horse inspired Charles Dent, a retired United Airlines pilot and art collector to organize a nonprofit group to ressurrect the horse. With the financial backing and support of supermarket magnate Frederick Meijer, Nina Akamu an American-born sculptor trained in Italy, created “The American Horse”. Based on Leonardo’s designs, Akamu casted two copies, one for the city of Milan and the other for Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Additional renderings The Horse of different sizes can  be seen at the San Siro Hippodrome Cultural Park in Milan and Leonardo’s birthplace Vinci in Italy and in Allentown, PA, Dent’s hometown.

There are other wonderful sculptures among the Frederick Meijer Gardens including works by Dale Chihuly who did a remarkable installation over the canals of Venice, Italian artist Mimmo Paladino and Beverly Pepper (Galileo’s Wedge) an American artist living between New York and Todi, in Italy.


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