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Michelangelo, the Head of Leda and a Royal Evildoer

We know Michelangelo (1475-1564) for this and that. We are amazed by the fact that he copied some Martin Schongauer engravings at the age of thirteen. We’ve heard rumors about his homosexuality. And although we’ve always liked Leonardo and his katanas better, we have to admit that the coolest Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle is named after Michelangelo. 452 years after his death, his works are still part of our pop culture. Any more proof needed for the greatness of this man? From January 17, the Phoenix Art Museum shows twenty-six of Michelangelo’s drawings from the collection of the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. Here’s the story of one of them.

Michelangelo Buonarotti, Study for the Head of Leda, c. 1530. Red pencil on paper, 35.4 x 26.9 cm. Casa Buonarroti, Florence.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Study for the Head of Leda, c. 1530. Red pencil on paper, 35.4 x 26.9 cm. Casa Buonarroti, Florence.

Michelangelo’s masterpiece Leda and the Swan (1529-1530), commissioned by Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, is lost since the 17th century. What remains are copies of it. And the drawing you see above, surely one of the most stunning Michelangelo ever made.

An appealing little head, you think? Well, it belonged to a man. He went by the name of Antonio Mini and was the master’s pupil and assistant. (There’s a lot to say about male models for female bodies in Renaissance art. We’ll leave that to others.)

After Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leda and the Swan, after 1530. Oil on canvas, 105.4 x 141 cm. National Gallery, London.
After Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leda and the Swan, after 1530. Oil on canvas, 105.4 x 141 cm. National Gallery, London.

Legend has it that it was that same Antonio Mini who received the painting as a gift after a representative of Alfonso I d’Este had acted disrespectfully to the master. In 1532, Mini took it to the Palace of Fontainebleau and offered it, along with its cartoon, to Francis I, king of France, who eventually bought it. You might think that a royal palace is a rather safe place for a painting. You could not be more wrong. About one century later, a certain queen labeled it “to be burned” because of its “lasciviousness”. And you dare to make the Three Musketeers risk their lives for you, Anne of Austria!

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Notte, 1526-1531. Marble, 155 x 150 cm, maximum length 194 cm diagonally. Museo delle Cappelle Medicee, Florence. Anyone recognizes the posture of the head?
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Notte, 1526-1531. Marble, 155 x 150 cm, maximum length 194 cm diagonally. Museo delle Cappelle Medicee, Florence. Anyone recognizes the posture of the head?

What happened then? We don’t know. But the painting didn’t survive it – which makes the drawing the most important remaining part of Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan-project. So let’s learn from history and show it some respect. In Phoenix. From January 17.

As for us, we did our job, respectwise:

1000 Drawings of Genius

TS Michelangelo

AG Michelangelo

BO Michelangelo

MS Michelangelo

PS Michelangelo

by Arik Jahn