Leda and the Swan
Leda and the Swan is a tempera on panel painting by followers of Leonardo da Vinci, located in the Borghese Collection in Rome. Its dimensions are 115 x 86 cm.
The story of Leda and the Swan was the subject of two compositions by Leonardo da Vinci, possibly dated to 1503–10. Neither survived nowadays as paintings by Leonardo, but there are several drawings for both by him and copies in oil, especially of the second composition, where Leda stands.
Leonardo began to study in 1504 an embodiment of Leda, who was sitting on the ground with her children. There are three sketches of Leda by Leonardo:
- Leda and the Swan, pen and ink and wash over black chalk on paper, 160 x 139 mm. 1503–1507, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth
- Study for kneeling Leda, black chalk, pen and ink on paper, 126 x 109 cm. 1503–1507, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
- Studies of Leda and a Horse, black chalk, brush and ink on paper, 1503–1507, Royal Library, Windsor
Leonardo was interested in the theme of Leda when he was working on Mona Lisa, and in Milan he made many sketches of the swans in the moat around Castello. The painting was described by Cassiano del Pozzo in 1625; at this stage it was in the royal collection in Fontainebleau:
“A standing figure of Leda almost entirely naked, with the swan at her and two eggs, from whose broken shells come forth four babies, This work, although somewhat dry in style, is exquisitely finished, especially in the woman’s breast; and for the rest of the landscape and the plant life are rendered with the greatest diligence. Unfortunately the picture is in a bad state because it is done on three long panels which have split apart and broken off a certain amount of paint.”
By the eighteenth century, the work of art was completely lost to the viewers. However, there are a few things left to give a good idea of how it looked. There are drawings of Leonardo’s head and bust of Leda; the famous figure, made in 1506 by Raphael; drawing in red chalk, which could make an assistant to Leonardo; Bugiardini picture based on the original Leonardo cartoon (1504); another copy, probably made by Francesco Melzi and based on the second cartoon by Leonardo (1508); a copy of another student, Cesare da Sesto. This latest work, as it is said, is closest to the original Leonardo and is displayed in the Galleria Borghese.
According to the myth, from the union of Leda and Jupiter disguised as a swan, two brothers of Dioscura were born, Castor and Pollux, shown here on the left as children, while the egg behind them points to the future birth of Helen and Clytemnestra. At the beginning of the 18th century, there was still a caricature of Milan’s original work by Leonardo, to which sources from the 16th century refer.
There are nine known versions of Leda by Leonardo, including this panel in the Borghese Gallery, which, in turn, is a copy of the original version of the painting. It is remarkable for Flemish-style landscapes with animals and flowers, and a female figure can be obtained from the prototype of Sodoma, to whom Giovanni Morelli attributed this work. Of unknown origin, it was first mentioned in the inventory of 1693.