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Object of the month: June 2014

'Leda and the Swan', attributed to Rosso Fiorentino after Michelangelo, 1530s

Published 3 June 2014

One of the treasures of the Royal Academy Collection is now on display in a new exhibition about Michelangelo at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

  • The imposing 16th-century drawing 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. 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.

  • Attributed to Rosso Fiorentino after Michelangelo, Leda and the Swan

    Attributed to Rosso Fiorentino after Michelangelo, Leda and the Swan, 1530s.

    Black chalk on ca.16 sheets of paper. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • Many copies were made from Michelangelo’s painting and cartoon. The Royal Academy drawing, along with a painted panel in the National Gallery, are among the small number of surviving copies which record the appearance of the lost work. The subsequent fate of Michelangelo’s original Leda, and its cartoon, remains 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 by William Lock the Younger 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.

    Find out more about the cartoon.
    The drawing can be seen in the exhibition 1564-2014 Michelangelo: A Universal Artist at the Capitoline Museum, Rome until 14 September 2014.