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Leonardo and the myth of Leda. Models, memories and metamorphosis of an invention  
Chiara Beghelli
ISSN 1127-4883     BTA - Telematic Bulletin of Art, September 1th 2001, n. 281

"Near the seat allowed to the Swan,
That Jupiter himself created in the sky,
Price for the beauty that seduced the lover, niveous
When the god went down turned into bird
And slipped his voluminous body into the lap of the confiding Leda.
Now too, stars-dressed, flies extending his wings."

The Latin poet Marcus Manilius describes in this way the constellation of the Swan in his "Star Poem", inspired to the ancient myth of Leda and Zeus, that, as a swan, seduced her. The young and beautiful Leda, daughter of Testio, king of Etolia, married Tindarus, king of Sparta. The queen was near the river Eurota, in Laconia, when the magnificent swan flied near to her, escaping from the attacks of an eagle; by their union born three twins, the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, and Elena, that will marry the king of Trioa, Menelao. But Leda didn't know that her lover actually was the Father of the gods, Zeus, that was used to have masquerades and metamorphosis to seduce the women he fell in love with: even Danae was a victim of Zeus, that appeared to her as a golden rain, and Europe, kidnapped by Zeus as a candid bull. According to some scholars, from the union between Leda and Zeus born Clitemntestra too, that will be the queen of the Acheos, with her husband, Agamemnon. This is only one of the different versions of this myth, but in the most famous one Leda is simply the woman who found the egg "blue-bell colored" that Nemesis, transformed into a wild goose, deposed after her union with the swan-Zeus; after keeping it under the tepid ash of an holocaust, Leda attended the birth of Elena.

In spite of the uncertainty about the original version of the myth, the episode seems to mean a transposition of some traditions and symbologies spread in the Mediterranean area as in the North European too: indeed, the swan is considered as a sacred bird, a solar symbol, for the Bronze Age Scandinavian people, that represented sunrays as long necks of swan, and for Greeks too, that associated swan to Apollo and Zeus himself. The genitive case of the declination of the name "Zeus" , dios, has a etymology in the Indo-European div, that means "shining": therefore, the same name of Leda, according to some scholars, is similar to the word "lada", in the ancient language of the Lici people meaning "woman", with evident reference to the primordial, mythic, feminine creature.

Maybe, because of so different versions, the myth caused different iconographic representations, since the ancient times: in a white-marble statue (II century B.C.), a copy of an original from V century B. C. attributed to Thimotheos, Leda is represented seated, protecting with her mantle the swan from the threatening eagle; in other more recent sculptures, gems and oil-lamps, Leda is represented lying under the swan that kiss her, or standing up, while the swan, as a human being ,embrace her with tenderness.

This is the iconography that probably inspired some artists from the XV and XVI centuries to realize the version of the myth with pictures or sculptures: the exhibition in the Leonardian Museum of Vinci retraces these links between ancient and renaissance artists, through the show of numerous works as the Leda of Thimotheos, kept in the Capitolin Museums in Rome, and the works of Michelangelo and Leonard, underlining the importance of the Middle Ages: in that period the huge influence of Christian religion made possible the link itself, even if amplifying it with new meanings. Mediaeval authors as Adolf of Orleans, John of Gardland, Petrus Berchorius, since XII century have been the creators of that process that allowed assimilation and adoption of the myth by the Christian theology: in the astronomic and astrologic literature, transcriptions of the ancient authors changed into moralizing texts, as happened for the Ovidio's ones, that describe the myth. So, the swan became symbol of Holy Ghost that with his purity fell down on the Virgin Mary, an image very loved by Egyptian Copts that carved it on their rings despite of the admonition of Clement of Alexandria; on this model, the myth was reintroduced by Antonio Averulio, called the Filarete, in a basso-rilievo (1554) representing the "Ovidian tales" carved on the bronze door under the St. Peter's portico in Rome. If the candid bird symbolized, for its purity, saints as Cunibert and Hugh of Grenoble, sometimes the swan stood for fortune, as affirmed, for example, Vincent de Bauvois in his "Speculum majus": for Vincent the image of the enlacing necks of two swans was the emblem "of caresses and licentious plays", or of hypocrisy, by hiding black flesh in white downs.

With this double valence the swan and Leda have come to Renaissance: Leonard represented them two times, always in a calm nature, standing and gazing at their sons with the typical, vague smile of the hieratic Leonard's figures, even if seems quite clear the two version (first half of the XVI century) are works of a master's disciple, that recovered some drafts of him. The Leda of the two canvas is calm, similar and at the same time so different from the model of Venus Pudica (very famous during the Middle Ages), as appears in the allegory of Prudence on the pulpit of the Pisa's Cathedral, by Giovanni Pisano, and in a canvas by Botticelli. The standing Leda was depicted by Raffaello too and by some Mannerists as Andrea del Sarto and, maybe, Pontormo ;very successful was the iconography of Leda knelt down before her sons, near to the soil, as in some drafts by Leonard kept in Royal Library in Windsor. That of the woman is a figure more complex and sensitive, vibrant, with a plastic posture given by the singular torsion of the body and the position of arms and legs. The vegetation, fluctuating in the wind, underlines the emotive stress of the moment,: this image appears in works by Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, called Il Giampietrino, in Staatische Museum of Kassel, in Germany, dated between the first and the second decade of XVI century, and in some Lombard and Tuscan painters' works, until a remake by Ferdinando Yañez de la Alameira, in a particular Nativity (Leda is the Madonna looking at her Baby).

Certainly, whether the standing Leda or the knelt down one, don't have the explicit erotism of the so-called "other Leda", a particular iconography that is represented, for example, in the little, magnificent onyx-cameo (III century B.C., Archaeological Museum of Naples): the lovers' portrait -pictured in an Hellenistic way- during the high point of their meeting, was painted even by Rosso Fiorentino (according to the last attribution, in 1532), and sculptured by Bartolomeo Ammannati (1538m Museum of Bargello, Florence); therefore, this images of the sixteenth century was undoubtedly the canvas by Michelangelo, who painted it commissioned by duke Alfonso d'Este: many timed the Este family had commissioned artworks with erotic themes. The canvas were unfortunately lost during the XVII century, when were burned because held as immoral and indecent.

The exhibition, organized by Gigetta Dalli Regoli, Romano Nanni and Antonio Natali, is an important opportunity to study very ancient themes and symbols, fascinating, that brought into existence sculptures, drafts, pictures, carving and precious gems, able to renovate and enrich themselves in time.



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