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Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan

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Leda and the Swan is a motif from Greek mythology
Greek mythology
Greek mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece...

 in which Zeus
Zeus
In the ancient Greek religion, Zeus was the "Father of Gods and men" who ruled the Olympians of Mount Olympus as a father ruled the family. He was the god of sky and thunder in Greek mythology. His Roman counterpart is Jupiter and his Etruscan counterpart is Tinia.Zeus was the child of Cronus...

 came to Leda
Leda (mythology)
In Greek mythology, Leda was daughter of the Aetolian king Thestius, and wife of the king Tyndareus , of Sparta. Her myth gave rise to the popular motif in Renaissance and later art of Leda and the Swan...

 in the form of a swan
Swan
Swans, genus Cygnus, are birds of the family Anatidae, which also includes geese and ducks. Swans are grouped with the closely related geese in the subfamily Anserinae where they form the tribe Cygnini. Sometimes, they are considered a distinct subfamily, Cygninae...

. According to later Greek mythology, Leda bore Helen and Polydeuces, children of Zeus, while at the same time bearing Castor and Clytemnestra
Clytemnestra
Clytemnestra or Clytaemnestra , in ancient Greek legend, was the wife of Agamemnon, king of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Mycenae or Argos. In the Oresteia by Aeschylus, she was a femme fatale who murdered her husband, Agamemnon – said by Euripides to be her second husband – and the Trojan princess...

, children of her husband Tyndareus
Tyndareus
In Greek mythology, Tyndareus or Tyndareos was a Spartan king, son of Oebalus and Gorgophone , husband of Leda and father of Helen, Castor and Polydeuces, Clytemnestra, Timandra, Phoebe and Philonoe.Tyndareus had a brother named Hippocoon , who seized power and exiled Tyndareus...

, the King of Sparta
Sparta
Sparta or Lacedaemon, was a prominent city-state in ancient Greece, situated on the banks of the River Eurotas in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese. It emerged as a political entity around the 10th century BC, when the invading Dorians subjugated the local, non-Dorian population. From c...

. In the W.B. Yeats version, it is subtly suggested that Clytemnestra, although being the daughter of Tyndareus, has somehow been traumatised by what the swan has done to her mother (see below). As the story goes, Zeus took the form of a swan and raped or seduced Leda on the same night she slept with her husband King Tyndareus
Tyndareus
In Greek mythology, Tyndareus or Tyndareos was a Spartan king, son of Oebalus and Gorgophone , husband of Leda and father of Helen, Castor and Polydeuces, Clytemnestra, Timandra, Phoebe and Philonoe.Tyndareus had a brother named Hippocoon , who seized power and exiled Tyndareus...

. In some versions, she laid two eggs from which the children hatched. In other versions, Helen is a daughter of Nemesis
Nemesis (mythology)
In Greek mythology, Nemesis , also called Rhamnousia/Rhamnusia at her sanctuary at Rhamnous, north of Marathon, was the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris . The Greeks personified vengeful fate as a remorseless goddess: the goddess of revenge...

, the goddess who personified the disaster that awaited those suffering from the pride of Hubris
Hubris
Hubris , also hybris, means extreme haughtiness, pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power....

.

The motif was rarely seen in the large-scale sculpture of antiquity, although a representation of Leda in sculpture has been attributed in modern times to Timotheos
Timotheos
Timotheus was a Greek sculptor of the 4th century BC, one of the rivals and contemporaries of Scopas of Paros, among the sculptors who worked for their own fame on the construction of the grave of Mausolus at Halicarnassus between 353 and 350 BC. He was apparently the leading sculptor at the...

  (compare illustration, below left); small-scale sculptures survive showing both reclining and standing poses, in cameos and engraved gems, rings, and terracotta oil lamps. Thanks to the literary renditions of Ovid
Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso , known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria...

 and Fulgentius
Fabius Planciades Fulgentius
Fabius Planciades Fulgentius was a late-antique period writer. Four extant works are commonly attributed to him, as well as a possible fifth which some scholars include in compilations with much reservation...

 it was a well-known myth through the Middle Ages, but emerged more prominently as a classicizing theme, with erotic overtones
Erotic art
Erotic art covers any artistic work that is intended to evoke erotic arousal or that depicts scenes of love-making. It includes paintings, engravings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, music and writing.-Definition:...

, in the Italian Renaissance.

Eroticism


The subject undoubtedly owed its sixteenth-century popularity to the paradox that it was considered more acceptable to depict a woman in the act of copulation with a swan than with a man. The earliest depictions show the pair love-making with some explicitness—more so than in any depictions of a human pair made by artists of high quality in the same period. The fate of the erotic album I Modi
I Modi
I Modi , also known as The Sixteen Pleasures or under the Latin title De omnibus Veneris Schematibus, is a famous erotic book of the Italian Renaissance in which a series of sexual positions were explicitly depicted in engravings. While the original edition was apparently completely destroyed by...

some years later shows why this was so. The theme remained a dangerous one in the Renaissance, as the fates of the three best known paintings on the subject demonstrate. The earliest depictions were all in the more private medium of the old master print
Old master print
An old master print is a work of art produced by a printing process within the Western tradition . A date of about 1830 is usually taken as marking the end of the period whose prints are covered by this term. The main techniques concerned are woodcut, engraving and etching, although there are...

, and mostly from Venice. They were often based on the extremely brief account in the Metamorphoses of Ovid
Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso , known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria...

 (who does not imply a rape), though Lorenzo de' Medici
Lorenzo de' Medici
Lorenzo de' Medici was an Italian statesman and de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic during the Italian Renaissance. Known as Lorenzo the Magnificent by contemporary Florentines, he was a diplomat, politician and patron of scholars, artists and poets...

 had both a Roman sarcophagus and an antique carved gem of the subject, both with reclining Ledas.

The earliest known explicit Renaissance depiction is one of the many woodcut
Woodcut
Woodcut—occasionally known as xylography—is a relief printing artistic technique in printmaking in which an image is carved into the surface of a block of wood, with the printing parts remaining level with the surface while the non-printing parts are removed, typically with gouges...

 illustrations to Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili , called in English Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream, is a romance said to be by Francesco Colonna and a famous example of early printing...

, a book published in Venice
Venice
Venice is a city in northern Italy which is renowned for the beauty of its setting, its architecture and its artworks. It is the capital of the Veneto region...

 in 1499. This shows Leda and the Swan making love with gusto, despite being on top of a triumphal car, being pulled along and surrounded by a considerable crowd. An engraving dating to 1503 at the latest, by Giovanni Battista Palumba, also shows the couple in coitus, but in deserted countryside. Another engraving, certainly from Venice and attributed by many to Giulio Campagnola
Giulio Campagnola
Giulio Campagnola was an Italian engraver and painter, whose few, rare, prints translated the rich Venetian Renaissance style of oil paintings of Giorgione and the early Titian into the medium of engraving; to further his exercises in gradations of tone, he also invented the stipple technique...

, shows a love-making scene, but there Leda's attitude is highly ambiguous. Palumba made another engraving in about 1512, presumably influenced by Leonardo's sketches for his earlier composition, showing Leda seated on the ground and playing with her children.

There were also significant depictions in the smaller decorative arts, also private media. Benvenuto Cellini
Benvenuto Cellini
Benvenuto Cellini was an Italian goldsmith, sculptor, painter, soldier and musician, who also wrote a famous autobiography. He was one of the most important artists of Mannerism.-Youth:...

 made a medallion, now in Vienna, early in his career, and Antonio Abondio
Antonio Abondio
Antonio Abondio was an Italian sculptor, best known as a medallist and as the pioneer of the coloured wax relief portrait miniature.Born in Riva del Garda, he worked in Italy between 1552 and 1565, and thereafter mainly for the Habsburgs...

 one on the obverse of a medal celebrating a Roman courtesan
Courtesan
A courtesan was originally a female courtier, which means a person who attends the court of a monarch or other powerful person.In feudal society, the court was the centre of government as well as the residence of the monarch, and social and political life were often completely mixed together...

.

In painting


Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

 began making studies in 1504 for a painting, apparently never executed, of Leda seated on the ground with her children. In 1508 he painted a different composition of the subject, with a nude standing Leda cuddling the Swan, with the two sets of infant twins, and their huge broken egg-shells. The original of this is lost, probably deliberately destroyed, and was last recorded in the French royal Château de Fontainebleau
Château de Fontainebleau
The Palace of Fontainebleau, located 55 kilometres from the centre of Paris, is one of the largest French royal châteaux. The palace as it is today is the work of many French monarchs, building on an early 16th century structure of Francis I. The building is arranged around a series of courtyards...

 in 1625 by Cassiano dal Pozzo
Cassiano dal Pozzo
Cassiano dal Pozzo was an Italian scholar and patron of arts. The secretary of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, he was an antiquary in the classicizing circle of Rome, and a long-term friend and patron of Nicolas Poussin, whom he supported from his earliest arrival in Rome: Poussin in a letter...

. However it is known from many copies, of which the earliest are probably the Spiridon Leda, perhaps by a studio assistant and now in the Uffizi
Uffizi
The Uffizi Gallery , is a museum in Florence, Italy. It is one of the oldest and most famous art museums of the Western world.-History:...

, and the one at Wilton House
Wilton House
Wilton House is an English country house situated at Wilton near Salisbury in Wiltshire. It has been the country seat of the Earls of Pembroke for over 400 years....

 in England (illustrated).

Also lost, and probably deliberately destroyed, is Michelangelo
Michelangelo
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni , commonly known as Michelangelo, was an Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, poet, and engineer who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art...

's tempera painting of the pair making love, commissioned in 1529 by Alfonso d'Este for his palazzo in Ferrara
Ferrara
Ferrara is a city and comune in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy, capital city of the Province of Ferrara. It is situated 50 km north-northeast of Bologna, on the Po di Volano, a branch channel of the main stream of the Po River, located 5 km north...

, and taken to France for the royal collection in 1532; it was at Fontainebleau
Château de Fontainebleau
The Palace of Fontainebleau, located 55 kilometres from the centre of Paris, is one of the largest French royal châteaux. The palace as it is today is the work of many French monarchs, building on an early 16th century structure of Francis I. The building is arranged around a series of courtyards...

 in 1536. Michelangelo's cartoon
Cartoon
A cartoon is a form of two-dimensional illustrated visual art. While the specific definition has changed over time, modern usage refers to a typically non-realistic or semi-realistic drawing or painting intended for satire, caricature, or humor, or to the artistic style of such works...

 for the work— given to his assistant Antonio Mini, who used it for several copies for French patrons before his death in 1533— survived for over a century. This composition is known from many copies, including an ambitious engraving by Cornelis Bos, c. 1563; the marble sculpture by Bartolomeo Ammanati
Bartolomeo Ammanati
Bartolomeo Ammannati was an Italian architect and sculptor, born at Settignano, near Florence. He studied under Baccio Bandinelli and Jacopo Sansovino and closely imitated the style of Michelangelo.He was more distinguished in architecture than in sculpture...

 in the Bargello, Florence; two copies by the young Rubens on his Italian voyage, and the painting after Michelangelo, ca. 1530, in the National Gallery, London
National Gallery, London
The National Gallery is an art museum on Trafalgar Square, London, United Kingdom. Founded in 1824, it houses a collection of over 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900. The gallery is an exempt charity, and a non-departmental public body of the Department for Culture, Media...

. The Michelangelo composition, of about 1530, shows Mannerist
Mannerism
Mannerism is a period of European art that emerged from the later years of the Italian High Renaissance around 1520. It lasted until about 1580 in Italy, when a more Baroque style began to replace it, but Northern Mannerism continued into the early 17th century throughout much of Europe...

 tendencies of elongation and twisted pose (the figura serpentinata) that were popular at the time. In addition, a sculptural group, similar to the Prado Roman group illustrated, was believed until at least the 19th century to be by Michelangelo.

The last very famous Renaissance painting of the subject is Correggio
Antonio da Correggio
Antonio Allegri da Correggio , usually known as Correggio, was the foremost painter of the Parma school of the Italian Renaissance, who was responsible for some of the most vigorous and sensuous works of the 16th century...

's elaborate composition of c. 1530 (Berlin); this too was damaged whilst in the collection of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans
Orleans Collection
The Orleans Collection was a very important collection of over 500 paintings formed by the French prince of the blood Philippe d'Orléans, Duke of Orléans, mostly acquired between about 1700 and his death in 1723...

, the Regent of France in the minority of Louis XV. His son Louis
Louis of Bourbon, Duke of Orléans
Louis d'Orléans was the Duke of Orléans and a member of the royal family of France, the House of Bourbon, and as such was a prince du sang. At his father's death, he became the First Prince of the Blood...

, though a great lover of painting, had periodic crises of conscience about his way of life, in one of which he attacked the figure of Leda with a knife. The damage has been repaired, though full restoration to the original condition was not possible. Both the Leonardo and Michelangelo paintings also disappeared when in the collection of the French Royal Family, and are believed to have been destroyed by more moralistic widows or successors of their owners.

There were many other depictions in the Renaissance, including cycles of book illustrations to Ovid, but most were derivative of the compositions mentioned above. The subject remained largely confined to Italy, and sometimes France – Northern versions are rare. After something of a hiatus in the 18th and early 19th centuries (apart from a very sensuous Boucher
François Boucher
François Boucher was a French painter, a proponent of Rococo taste, known for his idyllic and voluptuous paintings on classical themes, decorative allegories representing the arts or pastoral occupations, intended as a sort of two-dimensional furniture...

,), Leda and the Swan became again a popular motif in the later 19th and 20th centuries, with many Symbolist and Expressionist treatments.


In modern art


Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly
Edwin Parker "Cy" Twombly, Jr. was an American artist well known for his large-scale, freely scribbled, calligraphic-style graffiti paintings, on solid fields of mostly gray, tan, or off-white colors...

 executed an abstract version of Leda and the Swan in 1962. It is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Avant-garde filmmaker Kurt Kren along with other members of the Viennese Actionist
Viennese Actionism
The term Viennese Actionism describes a short and violent movement in 20th century art that can be regarded as part of the many independent efforts of the 1960s to develop "action art" . Its main participants were Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. As "actionists",...

 movement, including Otto Muehl
Otto Muehl
Otto Muehl is an Austrian artist, who is best known as one of the co-founders as well as a main participant of Viennese Actionism. In 1972 he founded the Friedrichshof Commune that existed for several years before falling apart in the 1990s...

 and Hermann Nitsch
Hermann Nitsch
Hermann Nitsch is an Austrian artist who works in experimental and multimedia modes.Born in Vienna, Nitsch received training in painting during the time he studied at the Wiener Graphische Lehr-und Versuchanstalt. He is called an "actionist" or a performance artist...

, made a film-performance called called 7/64 Leda mit der Schwan in 1964. The film retains the classical motif, portraying, for most of its duration, a young woman embracing a swan.

Photographer Charlie White included a portrait of Leda in his "And Jeopardize the Integrity of the Hull" series. Zeus, as the swan, only appears metaphorically.

There is a life-sized marble statue of Leda and the Swan at the Jai Vilas Palace Museum in Gwalior, Northern Madhya Pradesh
Madhya Pradesh
Madhya Pradesh , often called the Heart of India, is a state in central India. Its capital is Bhopal and Indore is the largest city....

, India.

In poetry


Ronsard wrote a poem on La Défloration de Lède, perhaps inspired by the Michelangelo, which he may well have known. Like many artists, he imagines the beak penetrating Leda's vagina.

"Leda and the Swan" is a sonnet by William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and playwright, and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. A pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms...

 first published in the Dial in 1924
1924 in poetry
Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature .-Events:* October 10 — Ezra Pound leaves Paris permanently and moves to Rapallo, Italy...

. Combining psychological realism with a mystic vision, it describes the swan's rape of Leda
Leda (mythology)
In Greek mythology, Leda was daughter of the Aetolian king Thestius, and wife of the king Tyndareus , of Sparta. Her myth gave rise to the popular motif in Renaissance and later art of Leda and the Swan...

. It also suggests that this event leads to the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra (the latter being the daughter of Leda) . The poem is regularly praised as one of Yeats's masterpieces. Camille Paglia
Camille Paglia
Camille Anna Paglia , is an American author, teacher, and social critic. Paglia, a self-described dissident feminist, has been a Professor at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania since 1984...

, who called the poem "the greatest poem of the twentieth century," and said "all human beings, like Leda, are caught up moment by moment in the 'white rush' of experience. For Yeats, the only salvation is the shapeliness and stillness of art."

Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío
Rubén Darío
Félix Rubén García Sarmiento , known as Rubén Darío, was a Nicaraguan poet who initiated the Spanish-American literary movement known as modernismo that flourished at the end of the 19th century...

's 1892 poem "Leda" contains an oblique description of the rape, watched over by the god Pan.

In the song "Power and Glory" from Lou Reed
Lou Reed
Lewis Allan "Lou" Reed is an American rock musician, songwriter, and photographer. He is best known as guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter of The Velvet Underground, and for his successful solo career, which has spanned several decades...

's 1992 album Magic and Loss
Magic and Loss
Magic and Loss is a concept album by Lou Reed, released in 1992. It was his sixteenth album. It was inspired in part by the illnesses and eventual deaths of two close friends: songwriter Doc Pomus, who gave Reed his start in the music business some 25 years earlier, and 'Rita.' Some in the music...

, Reed recalls the experience of seeing his friend dying of cancer and makes reference to the myth, "I saw isotopes introduced into his lungs / trying to stop the cancerous spread / And it made me think of Leda and The Swan / and gold being made from lead"

External links