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Leda and the Swan

Roman art

Leda is shown standing, wearing a delicate tunic and raising up her mantle with her outstretched left hand. The figure is portrayed in the act of protecting a swan from an eagle attack, as described in the myth. The swan is in fact Zeus, who, attracted to the young woman, took on the guise of the animal to seduce her. Pollux and Helen were the result of their union.

The sculpture was probably unearthed in the Borghese excavations carried out between 1820 and 1821 in the area between Frascati and Monte Porzio Catone. Nibby mentions it for the first time in the Villa Borghese in Room VI.

The sculpture is probably a late Hadrianic copy of an original from the fourth century BCE attributed to the sculptor Timotheus. A similar sculpture (inv. IV), only the lower half of which has been preserved, is on view in the Portico of the Galleria Borghese.

Object details

II secolo d.C.
white marble
altezza senza plinto cm 127; testa altezza cm 20

Borghese Collection, probably from the excavation carried out in 1821 in the area between Frascati and Monte Porzio Catone, in the Lucidi vineyard or in Cocciano (Nibby 1841, p. 922, no. 10; Canina 1841, pp. 146–147, pl. XXXVa; Valenti 2003, pp. 187–192); cited for the first time in the villa by Nibby, in Room VI (Nibby 1832, p. 112, no. 5, pl. 34); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 51, no. 142. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 19th century, Marble restorations: in the plinth, in the lower part of the rock, in the big toe and the other two toes on the right foot, left foot with the support and the lower hem of the drapery; the swan’s neck and head, right thumb, left arm with the entire fall of the mantle, up to the vertical attachment of the chiton, which is ancient, the hair on the crown of the head; the surface of the drapery is largely reworked.
  • 1996–97 Liana Persichelli


‘Leda makes Jove my father, deceived by the swan,

false bird she cherished in her trusting bosom’

(Heroides 17.57–58)

The Diario di Roma of 1821 reports that the excavation commissioned that year by Principe Camillo Borghese in the Lucidi vineyard, in contrada S. Croce in Frascati, unearthed numerous sculptures, including ‘a marble statue measuring 6 palmi representing Leda, who is getting up from a seated position and raising her left hand, wrapped in her garment, to conceal and protect the swan she hides in her lap from the talons of an eagle’ (Diario di Roma 1821, pp. 4–6). The final phase of the excavation was personally overseen by Luigi Canina, who reported in 1828 ‘a Leda found during the excavations carried out on the Tuscolano slopes along with other valuable statues’ and, in 1841, a Leda and the Swan ‘unearthed in the excavations carried out in the Lucidi vineyard on the slopes of the Tuscolano hill between Frascati and Monte Porzio’ (Canina 1828, p. 5; Canina 1841, pp. 146–147, pl. XXXVa).

Nibby more generically located the find in a vineyard ‘between Frascati and Monte Porzio’ and mistakenly dated the discovery to 1823 (Nibby 1841, p. 922, no. 10). In 2003, Massimiliano Valenti examined the sculptures discovered in the Lucidi vineyard and determined that it is more likely that the Leda came from the area of the villa attributed to Tiberius and located in contrada Cocciano, not far from the Lucidi vineyard (Valenti 2003, pp. 187–192). Nibby was the first to mention the display of the sculpture in what is now Room VI of the Villa Borghese (Nibby 1832, p. 112, no. 5, pl. 34).

The statue depicts the young Leda holding Zeus, in the guise of a swan, on her lap. The figure sits on a rock and is only partially covered by the light tunic, called a chiton, knotted at her left shoulder and sensually slipping down to leave her virtually nude. In her left hand, she holds the hem of her himation (a type of mantle) up high in a protective gesture, to stop the eagle from snatching the swan. The swan, sitting on her right knee and held with her right hand, stretches its neck to better see her face. But the young woman’s face is tipped upward and to the left. This device seems to lend the scene a feeling calm pathos, suggesting that the impending union between the two is inevitable. According to tradition, Zeus, in love with Leda, transforms himself into a swan in order to seduce her on the banks of the River Eurotas. The young woman, who ingenuously protects him from an attacking eagle by hiding him under her mantle, lays an egg after their union, from which are born Pollux and Helen.

This sculpture is considered a reworking of an original made in the fourth century CE and attributed to the sculptor Timotheus, many copies of which are known. There is fragmentary sculpture with the same iconography (only a portion of the lower part remains), on view in the Portico of the Galleria Borghese (inv. IV). There is a similar replica, dated to the Hadrianic age, in the Capitoline Museum (inv. no. 302; Dalli Regoli, Nanni, Natali 2001, p. 90) and another, from the Villa Magnani on the Palatine Hill, at the J. Paul Getty Museum (Angelicoussis 2017, II, pp. 84–91, no. 9, figs. 9.1–9.9).

1893, Venturi described it as a ‘copy of a Hellenistic original’ (Venturi 1893, p. 42). Rieche, who studied the Borghese sculpture in 1978, identified it as a Hadrianic copy and noted that the head was handled differently from the body and drapery, the rendering of the former being precise and refined and that of the latter more summary (Rieche 1978, p. 29, no. 24, pl. 27).

Giulia Ciccarello

  • Diario di Roma, 22, 1821, pp. 4-6.
  • L. Canina, Le nuove fabbriche della Villa Borghese denominata Pinciana, Roma 1828, p. 5.
  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, pp. 112-113, n. 5, tav. 34.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p. 22, n. 10.
  • L. Canina, Descrizione dell’antico Tuscolo, Roma 1841, p. 146, tav. XXXVa.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 922, n. 10.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano del Palazzo della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), I, p. 25, n. 10.
  • G. Tomassetti, Della Campagna Romana nel Medio Evo, in “Archivio della Società Romana di Storia Patria” IX, 1886, pp. 372-432, in part. p. 372, nota 1.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 42.
  • G. Giusti, La Galerie Borghèse et la Ville Humbert Premier à Rome, Roma 1904, p. 42.
  • G. Lippold, Photographische Einzel auf nahmen antike Sculpturen, X, 1, München 1925, p. 14, n. 2755.
  • G. Lippold, Die Griechische Plastik, in “Handbuch der Archäologie”, VI. III. 1, Munich 1950, p. 221, nota 8.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, (3° Edizione) Roma 1954, p. 18.
  • R. Calza, Catalogo del Gabinetto fotografico Nazionale, Galleria Borghese, Collezione degli oggetti antichi, Roma 1957, p. 9, n. 33.
  • S. Reinach, Répertoire de la statuaire grecque et romaine, II, Roma 1965, p. 416, n. 3.
  • A. Rieche, Die Kopien der «Leda des Timotheos», in “Antike Plastik”, XVII, 1978, p. 23, n. 3; pp. 38-39, tavv. 18-19.
  • B. Vierneisel-Schlörb, Glyptothek München, Katalog der Skulpturen, II, Klassische Skulpturen des 5. und 4. Jahrunderts v. Chr., München 1988, p. 51, n. 167, n. 5.
  • P. Moreno, Museo e Galleria Borghese, La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, pp. 17-18.
  • P. Moreno, S. Staccioli, Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, Milano 1981, p. 101, fig. 68.
  • P. Moreno, C. Sforzini, I ministri del principe Camillo: cronaca della collezione Borghese di antichità dal 1807 al 1832, in “Scienze dell’Antichità”, 1, 1987, p. 350, fig. 7.
  • P. Linant de Bellefonts, s.v. Leda, in “Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae”, VI, I, Zürich-München 1992, p. 239, n. 73c.
  • P. Moreno, Sabato in museo. Letture di arte ellenistica e romana, Milano 1999, pp. 183, 187.
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 166, n. 18.
  • G. Dalli Regoli, R. Nanni, A. Natali, Leonardo e il mito di Leda, modelli, memorie e metamorfosi di un’invenzione, Milano 2001, p. 90.
  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, p. 234, n. 223.
  • M. Valenti, Gli scavi Borghese nella Vigna Lucidi a Frascati, in “Lazio e Sabina”, II, atti del convegno (a cura di) G. Ghini, Roma 7-8 maggio 2003, pp. 187-192.
  • E. Angelicoussis, Reconstructing the Lansdowne Collection of Classical Marbles, Munich 2017, vol. I, pp. 9, 47-48, 67, 76, 103, 110, 112; vol. II, pp. 84-91, no. 9, figs. 9.1-9.9.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008480, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.