At times, inspiration for blog posts comes to me in very convoluted ways. This one was born out of curiosity by a book that I am currently reading (Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves). The book has nothing to do with Italy, and therefore its review would not be true to my blog’s theme. But a mention in the book of some paintings created by some of Italy’ masters has inspired some research on my part into these works of art and a reminder that I actually saw one of these masterpieces when it was on tour here in San Jose. The paintings are the renditions of the Greek mythological story of Leda and the Swan. As the legend goes, Zeus appeared to the beautiful Leda and seduced her on the same night that she had made love with her husband. She subsequently became pregnant from both of these unions and gave birth to a pair of human twins and a pair of godly twins that hatched from an egg. The eroticism of this subject inspired many painters to depict it, and Renaissance painters, especially, were taken with the idea of painting this subject. Since it was frowned upon to depict any kind of human “interaction”, they could express their sensual sides by depicting “non-human” ones!
One such Italian great was Leonardo Da Vinci. This was the Leda that I saw! Actually it is a copy by one of Leonardo’s students, Cesare Sesto, because the real one was lost (painted over by Leonardo himself, perhaps, to reuse the canvas?) Too bad, because it is a beauty. To my perspective, Leonardo’s depiction does not seem to be erotic at all. The swan seems to be acting like a pet for Leda. It is looking at her lovingly as any loyal pet would look at it’s owner, and she is stroking it as if it were a treasured pet. The painting has an aura of innocence to it. Leda seems calm in the swan’s presence, and the swan seems very docile.
Michelangelo, on the other hand, decided to be a bit more adventurous in his interpretation, even though this one doesn’t really show much. I guess the idea is there, though, with their lips almost touching and her legs sprawled over the swan in a sensuous gesture.
Many other artists have interpreted this story – beginning with the ancient Greeks and continuing to this day. It is interesting to note the changes in them as the times change.By the way, The Swan Thieves was a very good book and I can highly recommend it (even though it has nothing Italian about it!!!)