|This imposing example of Renaissance draughtsmanship depicts the mythical union of Leda, Queen of Sparta, with the god Jupiter who has taken the form of a swan. |
Leda is one of the oldest and largest drawings in the Royal Academy Collections. However, its real fascination lies in the fact that it replicates a long-lost work by Michelangelo. It was once thought to be Michelangelo's cartoon for the painting of Leda and the Swan that he produced for Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, in 1529-30. However, this attribution has since been challenged and the RA's drawing is now considered to be a copy made by another 16th-century artist, possibly Rosso Fiorentino. Michelangelo's painting and cartoon were sent to France in the 1530s and have since been lost or destroyed. The Royal Academy drawing is therefore among a small number of surviving contemporary copies that record the appearance of Michelangelo's original painting.
The history of Michelangelo's Leda, and its copies, is complex. For reasons which remain obscure, the artist never delivered the painting to the Duke of Ferrara but instead sent the painting and its cartoon to France with his assistant Antonio Mini. There is little solid evidence for the painting's whereabouts once it reached France but the art historian Giorgio Vasari was probably correct in his claim that Michelangelo's Leda was acquired by King François I for the palace of Fontainebleau. The Royal Academy's drawing is thought to have been made from Michelangelo's cartoon rather than his painting, possibly by Rosso Fiorentino who was in France from 1530 to 1540 in the service of the King. Some scholars have doubted the logic of Rosso copying a work which was already in the French royal collection, but the high quality of drawing, along with Vasari's recollection that a cartoon of a Leda was found in Rosso's studio after his death, make this a plausible attribution.
The powerful physicality and erotic charge of Leda and the Swan proved controversial, and probably account for the disappearance of Michelangelo's original works. His painting is reputed to have been destroyed during the seventeenth century on the orders of Queen Anne of Austria because she objected to its 'lasciviousness'. An inventory of the French royal collection made in 1691 records this iconoclastic act as well as the existence of a drawing 'by Michelangelo representing a Leda'. A note in the margin indicates that the drawing was also 'to be burned' and its absence from subsequent inventories suggests that it must have been destroyed, sold or given away.
Attempts to identify the Royal Academy's Leda cartoon with the drawing mentioned in the 1691 French royal inventory have recently been disproved. It has been shown that the cartoon was in the collection of Bernardo Vecchietti in Florence from 1568. It remained in the possession of this family until c. 1771 when it is recorded as having passed to the English collector William Lock the Elder. Lock the Elder set out on a Grand Tour in 1749 and reached Rome by January 1752 travelling with the artist Richard Wilson and the painter and dealer, Thomas Jenkins. Lock began to collect artworks while in Italy and is said to have inherited a large fortune in the early 1760s. By 1774 his collection included two of the 'most beautiful & largest Claude's' and models 'by several Old Masters'. It is likely that he bought the cartoon directly from the Vecchietti family. He had it shipped to London by 1773 and it was later hung at his country estate, Norbury Park in Surrey.
When Lock died the cartoon passed to his son, William Lock the Younger, who kept the work in his study until plans to move abroad necessitated the sale of some of the family collection. At this point, Sir Thomas Lawrence, who was a friend of the family as well as an obsessive collector of Old Master drawings, made a desperate but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to persuade Lock to sell him the drawing. Lock the Younger refused, however, and instead presented the cartoon to the Royal Academy where it was initially displayed in the RA Schools as an example to the students. When the institution moved to Burlington House later in the century, the drawing was hung in the General Assembly Room. The image remained contentious, however, and in 1877 two Academicians unsuccessfully attempted to have it ousted from the collection on the grounds that it was morally corrupting.