The story of Leda and the swan was taken up by artists of the early 16th century where, prior to Leonardo da Vinci, it is practically absent in all two-dimensional art. Here the god Zeus, disguised as a swan, seduces Leda who seems to willingly accept his advances. Unusually in depictions of this subject both the eggs from which the resultant offspring are said to have hatched, and some of the children themselves, are included. Two offspring are said to have resulted from Leda’s union with the swan, Helen and Polydeuces, and a further two, Castor and Clytemnestra, from her sleeping with her husband Tyndareus on the same night, each pair hatching from a different egg. Here we likely see both of Zeus’ offspring: Castor, who touches the swan and Helen behind him holding a veil or mantle over her head. However only one of Tyndareus’ children is shown, presumably Castor, while Clytemnestra is absent. The icongraphy is highly unusual both for their inclusion at all, but equally for the inclusion of only three of the four.
Two other works by Brescianino of the same general format are known. One, depicting The family of Adam, shows Eve in almost the same position as Leda, the young Cain and Abel behind and Adam to the right.1 The other shows Venus reclining in a landscape attended by two putti symbolising Sacred and Profane Love.2 All three works are very closely related to one by Domenico Beccafumi showing Venus in a landscape in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham.3 As here, in the Beccafumi the female nude reclines across the full-width of the panel, her right elbow bent to take some of her weight. It is of remarkably similar scale and dimensions to Leda (Venus measures 57 x 126 cm) and is thought to have been part of the decorative scheme featuring famous women painted for the bedchamber of the Sienese nobleman Francesco Petrucci, to which panels by Beccafumi in the National Gallery in London (depicting Marzia and Tanaquilla) and the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome (Cornelia) also belong.4 Torriti and others have suggested Venus may have served as the headboard to the bed. Given the present panel's similar subject, shape, size and composition it seems fair to surmise (as it does with his Family of Adam and Venus with Sacred and Profane Love) that it too would originally have been intended as the headboard to a bed for a marital bedchamber in or around Siena.
We are grateful to Prof. Carlo Falciani for endorsing the attribution to Brescianino on the basis of photographs.
1. See Domenico Beccafumi e il suo tempo, exhibition catalogue, Siena 1990, reproduced p. 295, fig. 7.
2. Sold London, Christie's, 13 December 2000, lot 60, for £260,000.
3. P. Torriti, Beccafumi, Milan 1998, pp. 94–95, cat. no. P29, reproduced.
4. Torriti, 1998, pp. 95–97, cat. nos P30 a, b, c, all reproduced.
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