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Leda and the Swan

After Michelangelo Buonarroti (Caprese Michelangelo, 1475-Rome, 1564)
16th century
148 x 204 cm (unframed)
Oil and tempera on canvas (laid down on panel in four parts)
  • Auctioned in 2016 at Christie’s in New York and bought anonymously.

Leda and the Swan’ is a 16th-century painting ‘after’ Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), ‘after’ meaning that the painting is a later imitation of the original work by the artist himself. Michelangelo, a High Renaissance sculptor, architect, painter and artist from Florence, studied Greek sculptures and mythology and frequently incorporated these elements into his work. Michelangelo’s original oil and tempera on canvas of ‘Leda and the Swan’, commissioned in 1529 by Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, was never given to the Duke. It is said, however, that the painting itself and some of the preparatory drawings were taken to France in 1531 by Antonio Mini, one of Michelangelo’s students, who instead sold the painting and preparatory drawings to the French king of the time, King Francis. The original painting and preparatory sketches have never been found and are believed to have been deliberately destroyed in 1543 by avid Catholics who gave orders to burn them for being too lustful and erotic.

The painting survives through various copies and variations and this particular painting of ‘Leda and the Swan’ depicts one of many versions of the pairing of Queen Leda with Zeus, Olympian god of the sky and thunder, who is disguised as a swan. Leda, regarded as one of the era’s most beautiful women who was married to King Tyndareus of Sparta, is seduced by Zeus. She gives birth to Helen and Pollux, children of Zeus, while at the same time giving birth to Castor and Clytemnestra, children of Tyndareus. Some of the various imitations and studies of the painting, created by several renowned artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452- 1519), illustrate that Leda was seduced whilst others depict that Leda was actually raped by Zeus.

Numerous compositions have been created with different intentions of the space being used. Michelangelo’s interpretation was that of a private space and setting with intricate forms and an overall exaggerated composition. The painting depicts Mannerist or Late Renaissance tendencies of elongating and twisting the figure, also known as figura serpentinata. Michelangelo was deeply impacted by the figura serpentinata style which features figures in a spiral pose. The figure is showing physical power, tension and passion which indicate that the movements had motivation.

There is an engraving from the 1540s of the lost Michelangelo painting by Cornelis Bos (1508-1555), a Flemish artist known for accurate engravings after Italian paintings. It is said that Bos worked on the background of the print to make it more attractive to sell. There is also a copy of the lost original ‘Leda and the Swan’ painting (after Michelangelo) at the National Gallery of London and two paintings by Rubens on the subject. One of Rubens’ ‘Leda and the Swan’ paintings, which is suggested to be the first of the two, might have been made for Rubens’ own use, as a record of Michalengelo’s famous interpretation. What is interesting in Rubens’ first interpretation is the introduction of a woodland scene rather than the drapery as seen in 16th-century copies. Other interpretations of drawings and paintings of ‘Leda and the Swan’ are also found at the Uffizi, the British Museum as well as Casa Buonarroti.

JAFFÉ, D. et al., Rubens – The Master in the Making, National Gallery Company Limited, 2005

LADIS, Andrew, WOOD Carolyn, EILAND William U., The Craft of Art: Originality and Industry in the Italian Renaissance and Baroque Workshop, University of Georgia Press; Reprint edition, March 15, 2016

Audio Guide – Maltese

Audio Guide – English

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