Masterpiece Stories

Lost Masterpieces: Leda and the Swan by Michelangelo

Javier Abel Miguel 8 April 2024 min Read

Throughout art history, numerous works have been lost, leaving only the stories as a testimony to their greatness. Among these lost treasures is Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan, whose story, from its origin to its disappearance, is full of mysteries.

The Starting Point

History is full of coincidences that end up being the origin of much greater events. Exactly is the case of circumstances that led Michelangelo to paint the work Leda and the Swan. The first coincidence took place in 1512, when Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara, visited Rome. Alfonso I had the opportunity to watch the work that Michelangelo was carrying out on the vault of the Sistine Chapel, which fascinated him completely.

Michelangelo Leda and the Swan: Titian, Portrait of Alfonso I d’Este, 1530-1535, Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse, France.

Titian, Portrait of Alfonso I d’Este, 1530-1535, Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse, France.

The second event took place on 6 May 1527, during the Sack of Rome. Emperor Charles V’s troops sacked the Eternal City, forcing Pope Clement VII, Giuliano de’ Medici, to take refuge in Castel Sant’ Angelo. The Florentines, who had been under Medici domination for years, expelled the Medici from the city and proclaimed themselves the Republic of Florence. However, in 1529 with the reconciliation between the Pope and the Emperor, the latter helped Clement VII recover the city. With the imminent threat, the leaders of the Republic felt the urgency of fortifying the city. Michelangelo was proposed to carry out the task and be appointed “General Governor and Procurator of the Fortifications of Florence”, and he accepted.

The Commission

At that time the city of Ferrara was known for the modernity and inexpugnability of its fortifications. The Signoria of Florence therefore decided to send Michelangelo to study the defenses, although some believe that this was a move by Medici supporters to delay the fortification of the city. Conspiracy aside, Michelangelo was received in Ferrara by Alfonso I with full honors. The Duke showed him the defenses, the artillery and even opened the doors of his private collection. Before Michelangelo’s departure to Florence, the Duke joked that he was his prisoner and that he would only let him go if he promised him a work. Michelangelo, of course, agreed. On his return to Florence, Michelangelo combined work on the city defenses with work on the new sacristy of San Lorenzo and the execution of Leda and the Swan.

Michelangelo Leda and the Swan: Michelangelo, Studio per porta San Gallo, Casa Buonarroti, Florence, Italy.

Michelangelo, Studio per porta San Gallo, Casa Buonarroti, Florence, Italy.

Leda and the Swan

The subject chosen by Michelangelo was the carnal union between Leda and Zeus. As a result, Leda laid two eggs, from which two pairs of children were born: Castor and Pollux, and Helen and Clytemnestra. The choice of a mythological theme may seem surprising in the context of Michelangelo’s works. However, the explanation is quite simple. At the time Alfonso I had commissioned a series of works of pagan subjects, from artists such as Titian and Giovanni Bellini, which was in vogue in Ferrara. In this scenario, Michelangelo, eager to demonstrate his superiority, saw an opportunity to rival two of the leading artists.

Michelangelo Leda and the Swan: Cornelis Bos, Leda and the Swan, 1530-1550, British Museum, London, UK.

Cornelis Bos, Leda and the Swan, 1530-1550, British Museum, London, UK.

The original composition of Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan is known from a detailed engraving by Cornelis Bos. It depicts Leda reclining naked with Zeus metamorphosed into a swan. At her feet, Michelangelo presents Castor and Pollux already hatched, together with an unhatched egg. Leda’s pose has the foreshortening so characteristic of the artist’s figures and may have been inspired by ancient Roman sarcophagi. It is interesting to note that the same pose can be found in Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Night, executed at the same time.

Michelangelo Leda and the Swan: Michelangelo, Night, 1526-1531, Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy.

Michelangelo, Night, 1526-1531, Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy.

It is curious that the only original document of the work that has survived to the present day is a study of the head of Leda, now in Casa Buonarroti. According to experts, Michelangelo’s model for the preparatory drawing was a male. It was a widespread practice at the time to take a male model and then feminize his features. However, whether by chance or not, this model would be his disciple Antonio Mini, who would play a crucial role in the future.

Michelangelo Leda and the Swan: Michelangelo, Study of Leda’s head, 1530, Casa Buonarroti, Florence, Italy.

Michelangelo, Study of Leda’s head, 1530, Casa Buonarroti, Florence, Italy.

A Great Loss

Once Michelangelo had completed the work, the Duke sent an emissary to pick it up at the end of October 1530. The emissary delivered a letter to Michelangelo in which the Duke explained that he wished to inspect the work before paying for it. This was not well received by the artist, who was displeased especially, when after examining the work, the emissary said that it was a “little thing”. In response to this comment, Michelangelo replied: “What is your profession?” The emissary replied sarcastically and called himself a businessman, which exhausted Florentine’s patience and he dismissed him, warning him that on this occasion he would make a bad bargain. In this absurd way, Alfonso was left without Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan.

Michelangelo Leda and the Swan: Peter Paul Rubens, Leda and the Swan, 1598-1600, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany.

Peter Paul Rubens, Leda and the Swan, 1598-1600, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany.

It was at this point that the previously mentioned Antonio Mini came into play. He was about to leave for France and the master entrusted him with both the work in question and its cardboard. There are various theories behind Michelangelo’s gesture. The most widespread suggests that, given that Antonio had two unmarried sisters, he was facing financial difficulties and selling the work could bring him a good profit. Another theory points out Michelangelo’s personal interest in presenting his work in France. In any case, Antonio left with the work in 1531.

The Journey to France

Before exploring the theories, let’s look at some known facts about the work’s journey to France. The first testimony comes from a letter written by Francesco Tebaldi, Mini’s traveling companion, to Michelangelo from Lyon in February 1532. In the letter Tebaldi mentions that they are on their way to Paris to show the work to the King of France. He also reveals that Rosso Fiorentino has begun a copy of the painting. In another missive, the same Tebaldi informs Michelangelo that later that year the work was acquired by the king and brought to the palace of Fontainebleau. However, the letter does not mention details of the Rosso Fiorentino copy or the cardboard of the original.

Michelangelo Leda and the Swan: Bartolomeo Ammannati, Leda and the Swan, 1536, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy.

Bartolomeo Ammannati, Leda and the Swan, 1536, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy.

The cardboard of the work deserves a special mention. Michelangelo gave both the work and the cardboard to Antonio Mini. However, according to Giorgio Vasari, the cardboard was in the possession of the Vecchietti family in Florence. Vasari saw it there, and as late as 1746 it was still in the same place. It is also very likely that Volterra and Ammanatti saw the cardboard there and were inspired by it for their respective works. However, we do not know when and how it disappeared.

The Facts

In 1642, Pierre Dan, a French religious scholar and chronicler, mentioned that the work had deteriorated, although its quality was undeniable. Finally, in 1683, we find the last testimony of the work, and from this point on the story is full of uncertainties. In 1691 a work with the same subject appeared in another inventory, which could be Rosso Fiorentino’s copy. Pierre-Jean Mariette probably saw this work between 1734 and 1735 and claimed that it was Michelangelo’s original painting. However, this assertion seems unlikely as the work does not depict Castor and Pollux as described by Michelangelo’s contemporaries, which would strengthen the theory that it was Fiorentino’s copy. Mariette mentions that the work was in bad condition and that it was restored by a mediocre restorer and the painting was to be sent to England.

Michelangelo Leda and the Swan: Adam Frans van der Meulen, View of the Palace of Fontainebleau from the Flowerbed Side, 1669, Palace of Versailles, France.

Adam Frans van der Meulen, View of the Palace of Fontainebleau from the Flowerbed Side, 1669, Palace of Versailles, France.

In England, the work was abandoned and its condition worsened. In 1838 the Duke of Northumberland donated it to the National Gallery, which made several unsuccessful attempts to restore it. Finally, the changes made during the fateful 18th-century restoration were successfully removed, revealing a work executed in tempera, as Vasari described the technique used by Michelangelo. The work has remained in the National Gallery ever since but, curiously, has never been exhibited and was not included in the catalog until 1915.

The Theories

The absence of the original work in inventories from 1683 onwards suggests that it may have been destroyed, sold, or given away… its trace was lost. This complicates the task of explaining what really happened to Michelangelo’s work, giving birth to several theories. One of them suggests that the work was destroyed in April 1643 by François Sublet de Noyers, Louis XIII’s minister of state. However, this theory can easily be dismissed, since as we have seen, there are later testimonies that confirm the existence of the work.

Michelangelo Leda and the Swan: Peter Paul Rubens, Anne of Austria, 1625, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA, USA.

Peter Paul Rubens, Anne of Austria, 1625, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA, USA.

Interestingly, an inscription appeared next to the work in the inventory of 1691. This inscription stated that the original work was burnt by Anne of Austria, regent of her son Louis XIV. However, this theory is also doubtful. We do not know the date on which the work was supposedly burnt, but we do know that Anne of Austria died in 1666. As in the previous theory, there are later records attesting to the existence of the work. To explain the loss of the work it is important to take into account other significant events. During the French Revolution the auction of furniture and objects from Fontainebleau took place, which means that the work could be found anywhere.

An Unsolved Mystery

As we have seen, tracing the work through the surviving testimonies is challenging. This makes it impossible for us to explain with certainty how and when it disappeared. What we can say is that, during its existence, the magnificence of the work inspired numerous artists who created their own versions. Even Peter Paul Rubens made several versions of the work. The enigmas surrounding the disappearance of Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan are numerous and may never be solved, but this uncertainty gives us hope that one day the work might be found.

Michelangelo Leda and the Swan: Peter Paul Rubens, Leda and the Swan, 1601, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, USA

Peter Paul Rubens, Leda and the Swan, 1601, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, USA

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