One of the treasures of the Royal Academy Collections is now on display in a new exhibition at the Chateau of Fontainebleau near Paris.
The imposing 16th-century drawing of Leda and the swan depicts a scene from Classical myth in which the god Jupiter transforms himself into a swan in order to seduce Leda, the Queen of Sparta. This work currently features in Le Roi et l’Artiste (The King and the Artist), a show highlighting the influential decorative schemes created by the Italian artist Rosso Fiorentino for his patron King François I at Fontainebleau.
Leda is an important example of Renaissance draughtsmanship as well as being the oldest and one of the largest drawings in the RA Collections. Its real fascination, however, lies in the fact that it replicates a long-lost work by Michelangelo. The Academy’s drawing is believed to be a copy of the ‘cartoon’ (a full-scale preparatory drawing) for Michelangelo’s painting of Leda and the swan (1530). We do not know for certain who made the copy but Rosso Fiorentino is a very likely candidate. He would have had the opportunity to study Michelangelo’s original works when François I had them brought to Fontainebleau during the 1530s.
Installation of 'Leda and the Swan', 1530s. Attributed To Rosso Fiorentino. Black chalk on paper, c.1800 X c. 2560 mm. Original attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.
The subsequent fate of Michelangelo’s Leda, and its cartoon, is also a mystery. Neither of these works have been seen for centuries and both are reputed to have been destroyed in France during the late 1600s because Queen Anne of Austria objected so strongly to their ‘lasciviousness’. Indeed, the erotic nature of the same composition also proved problematic at the Royal Academy. The drawing of Leda and the swan was given to the institution in 1821 but fifty years later two Academicians, John R. Herbert and John Callcott Horsley, attempted to persuade their fellow RAs to oust the drawing from the Collections on moral grounds. Luckily, their campaign was unsuccessful.
The photograph above shows Leda and the swan being installed in the exhibition space at the Chateau of Fontainebleau by a team of art handlers. Drawn on sixteen sheets of paper joined together, the whole work measures approximately 180cm by 250cm. In order to protect the centuries- old paper from external changes in humidity and temperature, the drawing is housed in a specially designed aluminium frame that fits inside its Victorian wooden frame. The size and weight of this work mean that moving or hanging it is a time-consuming and delicate operation.