The story of Leda and the Swan was popularized by early 16th-century artists whereas, prior to Leonardo da Vinci, it was practically absent in all two-dimensional art. Here the god Zeus, disguised as a swan, seduces Leda who seems to willingly accept his advances. The eggs from which Leda’s resulting offspring hatched, as well as some of the children, are depicted, which is atypical among depictions of this subject. The offspring of Leda’s union with the swan are Helen and Polydeuces, and she also gave birth to Castor and Clytemnestra from sleeping with her husband Tyndareus on the same night, each pair hatching from a different egg. Here we likely see both of Zeus’ offspring: Polydeuces, 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 iconography is highly unusual both for the inclusion of the children, as well as for the inclusion of only three of the four.
Two other works by Brescianino with the same general composition are known. One, depicting The family of Adam, shows Eve in almost the same position as Leda, with the young Cain and Abel behind and Adam to the right.1 The other shows Venus reclining in a landscape attended by two putti symbolizing 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. Beccafumi’s Venus 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 mythological 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 served as the headboard to a bed for a marital bedchamber in or around Siena. The iconography of the panels, with their focus on offspring and families, also suggests this function. 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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