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Leda and the Swan

From Academic Kids

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Leda.jpg
Leda and the Swan: copy after a lost original by Michelangelo, one of the iconic images of 16th century Mannerism

The motif of Leda and the Swan from Greek mythology, in which the Greek god Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan, was rarely seen in Gothic art, but resurfaced as a classicizing theme, with erotic overtones, in Italian painting and sculpture of the 16th Century. The most familiar examples are the copies of Leonardo da Vinci's lost painting, with the two sets of infant twins; Correggio's elaborate composition of c. 1530 (Berlin); and two versions of a lost Michelangelo (illustration, right) that is also known from an engraving by Cornelis de Bos, c. 1563; the marble sculpture by Bartolomeo Ammanati in the Bargello, Florence; and the painting after Michelangelo, c. 1530, in the National Gallery, London. The Michelangelo composition is a definitive example of Mannerism.

Leda and the Swan furnished a common motif for the visual arts into the 19th century.

"Leda And The Swan" is a poem by William Butler Yeats first published in 1924. Reviving what had become an insipid classical clich by combining psychological realism with a mystic vision, it describes the swan's mating with Leda, mother of Helen of Troy and her sister Clytemnestra, the faithless wife of Agamemnon.

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower1
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

1"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/ And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" (Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus). Both Helen and Clytemnestra were Leda's daughters.

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