Importing Italian Culture

Leda and the Swan

Full image.



Cornelis Bos
Flemish, ca. 1510–before 1566
after Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1475–1564
Leda and the Swan, after 1537
Gift of George C. Kenney II and Olga Kitsakos-Kenney


In his lifelong quest to acquire all things Italian, François I always sought to attract the greatest lights of Italian painting—including Leonardo, Andrea del Sarto, and Michelangelo—to his court. While he succeeded in convincing the aged Leonardo to enter his service in 1516, and, in so doing, obtained the Mona Lisa for France, the transalpine journey was a difficult and dangerous one, and neither Andrea del Sarto nor the notoriously overcommitted Michelangelo could accept François’s invitation.


However, a rare panel painting of Leda and the Swan by Michelangelo did make its way to France in the possession of Michelangelo’s pupil, Antonio Mini, who seems to have sold it to François. It entered the royal collection at Fontainebleau in the early 1530s, and François’s court painter, Rosso Fiorentino, even painted a copy of it. The painting has since been lost. This print, engraved and published by the Flemish artist Cornelis Bos, is the only record of Michelangelo’s completed painting. Bos, whose first prints date to 1537, must have seen the work at Fontainebleau during a journey to France sometime after this date.


The story of Leda comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and tells of a mortal maiden who was seduced by Jupiter in the form of a swan.  As such, the image belongs to the theme of the Loves of the Gods. François seems to have been particularly intrigued by the idea of a powerful ruler made foolish enough by passionate, excessive desire to transform himself into an animal, and he adorned his splendid gallery at Fontainebleau with frescoes of various gods in similar amorous pursuits. The contemporaries enjoyed the eroticism of the scene, while benefiting from a moral lesson.