September 02, 1996 12:00 PM

AT HIS DEATH IN 1519, LEONARDO da Vinci had never finished what might have been his grandest work: a 24-foot-high equestrian statue designed for the Duke of Milan. Today, Il Cavallo, head high, nostrils flared, stands in the Tallix Foundry in Beacon, N.Y., testimony to an artist’s genius and an art lover’s passion. “Fortunately for Leonardo,” says Rod Skid-more, a sculptor who worked on the project, “Charlie Dent came along. Now the horse is up and practically prancing.”

The second act of this 500-year-old drama began in 1977 when Charles C. Dent, a retired United Airlines pilot with a fascination for the Italian Renaissance, read an article about the statue in National Geographic. Suddenly, remembers a friend, he dropped the magazine and exclaimed, “Let’s give Leonardo his horse!”

The vow became a crusade. Dent, a bachelor who lived in Fogelsville, Pa., dipped into his savings, sold pieces from his eclectic art collection, and established a nonprofit organization that has so far raised $3.2 million for the $4.7 million project. Sadly, Dent died at 77 of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1994, but his friends promised to carry on.

Leonardo would have understood. After receiving the duke’s commission in 1482, he worked on the statue intermittently for 16 years, eventually completing a full-scale clay model. Unfortunately, the duke, fearful of an invasion from France, diverted the bronze intended for the statue to cannon production. Milan fell anyhow, and Leonardo’s steed crumbled as Gascon bowmen used it for target practice.

The 20th-century version, based on sketches, will be cast in bronze next year, then gilded and given to Milan to exhibit in a public space. “Wait’ll they see the real thing,” says Harry Bachmann, a foundry artisan who helped create it. “Jaws are going to drop.”

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