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copy after Leonardo da Vinci

(Vinci 1452 - Amboise 1519)

The painting, long considered to be by Leonardo, is in fact one of the most significant copies of the lost Leda, cited in sources in France in 1625. Greatly admired in its time, the work revisited the ancient myth of Jupiter who transformed himself into a swan out of love for Leda. The painting was a reflection by Leonardo on the theme of the forces of Nature, the perennial mutation of which he had already explored in his Mona Lisa. The symbolic centre of the Borghese composition is the egg, almost hidden by the grass, with the figure of Leda, still enclosed in the embrace of her lover, acting as a counterpoint. The nine currently known copies of the work are a reflection of the popularity of the theme.

Object details

Ante 1517
tempera on panel
cm 115 x 86

Collezione Borghese, inv. c.1633, no. 451; inv. 1693, no.313, sixth room where the zampanaro [bagpipe player] is; inv. 1700, St. VI, no. 4; inv. 1790, St. VI, no. 33; inv. 1812; Inventario fidecommissario Borghese 1833 (Mariotti 1892, p.88, no.1). Purchased by the Italian state in 1902.

  • 1939 Milano
  • 1950 Vercelli
  • 1950 Siena
  • 1984 Roma, Palazzo Barberini
  • 1994 Malmö, Rooseum Konsthall
  • 1994 Stoccolma, Kulturhuset
  • 2000 Roma, Museo del Corso
  • 2001 Vinci, Palazzo Uzielli, Museo Leonardiano
  • 2003-2004, Atene, Alexandros Soutzos Museum
  • 2006-2007 Firenze, Galleria degli Uffizi
  • 2009 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 2009-2010, Kyoto Metropolitan Art Museum - Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art
  • 2012 Fukuoka, Art Museum
  • 2013 San Paolo-Brasilia, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil
  • 2018-2019 Roma, Scuderie del Quirinale
  • 2019 Roma, Villa Farnesina, Accademia dei Lincei
  • 2022-2023 Roma, Museo Nazionale Romano
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1936/37 Carlo Matteucci
  • 1966/67 Angelini
  • 1993 Laboratory of the former SBAS at Palazzo Barberini
  • 2001 Laura Ferretti
  • 2001 Editech by Maurizio Seracini (diagnostics):
  • 2009 Lidia Del Duca
  • 2018 Paola Mastropasqua in collaboration with Andrea Parri
  • 2019 Diagnostics investigations carried out in agreement with the Louvre


Leda, wife of Tindarus, king of Sparta, was loved by Zeus, who came to her in the form of a swan and lay with her along the banks of the Eurotas River. Several children were born from this union with the distinction of being begotten through eggs, from which hatched the divine twins Castor and Pollux, Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra.

Since antiquity, the theme has been very popular, and in the Renaissance, artists often focused on the erotic representation of the union between the woman and the swan. In the painting under examination, the artist chose instead to emphasise the standing presence of the beautiful naked Leda, who tenderly embraces her swan lover. He is at her side, encircling her with his wing, while she gazes at the two little cherubs playing in the meadow in front of an unhatched egg. The setting of the scene is a peaceful river landscape, perhaps referring to the Eurotas River mentioned in the myth. In fact, beneath the surface of today’s painting, radiographic investigations have revealed the presence of an earlier idea with four (Barbiellini Amidei, 1983, p. 100 ss.) or six cherubs (Bartoli, 2001, p. 67).

The first confirmation of this work in the Borghese collection can be found in the inventory of c.1633 (Corradini 1998, p. 451), where it appears as “A painting of a Leda with a swan and two little cherubs, 4 ½ high by 3 ½ wide with a gilded frame, Leonardo da Vinci”. It is also mentioned in the inventory of 1693: “a painting of 4 palms with a nude Woman embracing a swan with two cherubs holding a bunch of flowers, no. 472 with a gilded frame, by Leonardo da Vinci”. With this attribution,  corrected slightly to a school of Leonardo in the fideicommissary lists (Mariotti 1892, p.88, no. 1) it remained this way until the lists that were compiled by Piancastelli (AGB, ms. 1888-1891, p. 74), only to be rejected for the first time by Morelli (1890, p. 148). He attributed it to Giovanni Antonio Bazzi called ‘il Sodoma’ followed by Venturi (1925, p. 204) and Longhi (1928, p. 221 ). Wilhelm Suida (1929, p. 232), on the other hand, suggested the name of Francesco Melzi and Kemp-Smart (1980, p. 185) and Marani (1998, p. 374) proposed the name of Bugiardini. More recently, Bartoli has more generically suggested an anonymous Tuscan artist (2001, p. 145), and Federica Zalabra (2018, no. 114) and Maria Forcellino (2019 sch. 3.2 p. 315-316), a copy from Leonardo. It should also be noted that the painting in the Borghese inventory of 1812 is among the paintings missing from the Camera delle Veneri [Venus Room] in Rome because it was sent to Turin on 6 September 1809.

The work is traditionally referred to in the iconographic tradition that goes back to a Leonardo original, perhaps a cartoon, from which numerous copies were made. Together with the painting in the Uffizi, the so-called Spiridon Leda (inv. 1890, no. 9953) and the one in the Pembroke collection, Wilton House, attributed to Cesare da Sesto, the Borghese Leda is believed to be one of the earliest and most faithful copies.

Regarding the story of Leonardo’s original, the scholar Jestaz, on the basis of a document from 1518 (Jestaz, 1999, p. 69) has reconstructed how Leonardo’s favourite pupil, Giovan Giacomo Caprotti known as Salai, sold a Leda to the King of France, Francis I, together with the St Anne, the Mona Lisa and St John the Baptist, today in the Louvre (inv. 776; MR 319; inv. 779; MR 316; inv. 775; MR 318). In another document, the inventory of the possessions of the same Salai, a Leda, bequeathed to him by his teacher, reappears in 1525, boasting the highest valuation in the list. In 1625, Cassiano dal Pozzo definitely saw a Leda in Fontainebleau, where it remained throughout the 17th century. It should be noted that there also exists a drawing with the same subject (Windsor Castle, Royal Library, inv. RL 12759), dated 1506, which Raphael probably drew from the lost original by Leonardo.

In evaluating this painting, it is crucial to examine the differences with the other two versions considered to be the closest to the Da Vinci model, the Spiridon Leda in the Uffizi (inv. 1890, no. 9953) and the one in the Pembroke collection at Wilton House. The Borghese Leda has the softest and most luminous stylistic treatment, not weighed down by the dark outlines that misrepresent Leonardo’s sfumato [subtly blurred outlines] in the other works. It also stands out for the greater space given to the river landscape and the mysterious gentleness of the maiden’s distracted face. Finally, in the Borghese painting, compared to the other two versions, the absence of the flowers in the cherubs’ hands should be noted. However, these are described and so present in the inventory of 1693, and therefore disappeared later than that date, perhaps during a clumsy restoration.

In addition to the drawing by Raphael, those depicting the head of the maiden should also be mentioned, one preserved in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan (inv. B 1354), attributed to Leonardo and Francesco Melzi, and the other in Windsor Castle (RL 12518), certainly autograph.

The Borghese Leda was definitely executed before Leonardo’s departure for France in 1517 and is one of the works that the artist took with him on his wanderings, therefore also to Rome during his stay from 1514 to 1517. During these years, Sodoma was also in the city, and it is very likely that he met Leonardo (Calzona, 2019, p. 272-275). If we add to this fact that in Bazzi’s death inventory, dated 14 February 1548 (Bartalini 2012), a painting of a Leda is listed, Morelli’s attributive hypothesis gains additional credibility. There are significant similarities in favour of this thesis between the painting in the Galleria Borghese and a Roman work by Sodoma, the Marriage of Alexander and Roxane in the Villa Farnesina, precisely in the detail of the woman, as well as Eve in the Descent into Limbo in the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena (inv. 443). The nude female figures are all simultaneously powerful and extremely graceful, their curving and sculptural bodies indulge in that vein of gentleness that almost verges on languor, and typical of the artist from Vercelli. If we add to these elements the fact that he was also an antiquarian and collector of antiquities (De Romanis, 2007, pp. 233-239), going so far as to name his own son Apelles, manifesting a conscious interest in myth and classical culture, the idea that he copied Leonardo’s only work with a mythological subject becomes all the more significant.

Lucia Calzona

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  • G. Frizzoni, Arte italiana del Rinascimento, Milano 1891, IV, p. 276.
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