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Stolen Art & Antiquities returned to Italy

April 27, 2012

NOVELLARA 1511 - 1587
oil on copper
16 7/8 by 11 3/4 in.; 43 by 30 cm.
ESTIMATE 1,000,000-1,500,000 USD
Lot Sold: 1,497,000 USD ($1.3 million hammer price + buyer's premium)

Yesterday at the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC, a ceremony was held to repatriate art and antiquities that had been stolen or otherwise illegally exported from Italy, this painting by Lelio Orsi among them.

It’s a weird painting, and that’s the single note I wrote in my Sotheby’s catalogue for January 24, 2008 sale of Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture, which is the last time I saw the work.  Turns out, according to Voice of America, it was was “smuggled into the US through false customs documents.”  Here’s the VOA News report which includes commentary by  Renato Miracco, the embassy’s extraordinary cultural attaché.

Along with the Orsi painting, pages torn from illuminated choirbooks and antiquities looted from archaeological sites were returned in a ceremony that included Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano and Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero. Looting Matters has additional coverage.

Here’s the complete entry from the 2008 Sotheby’s catalogue:


Victor Spark, New York; Private Collection, New York.


V. Romani, Lelio Orsi, Modena 1984, p. 38, footnotes 55 and 56, p. 113, reproduced fig. 23, and p. 170;
F. Frisoni, in E. Monducci & M. Pirondini eds., Lelio Orsi, exhibition catalogue, Reggio Emilia, Teatro Valli, December 5, 1987 – January 30, 1988, pp. 140-41, cat. no. 124, reproduced;
D. Ekserdjian, “Lelio Orsi, Book Review,” in The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXXX, no. 1024, July 1988, p. 539, reproduced fig. 62;
F. Cappelletti, in The Dictionary of Art, London and New York 1996, vol. 23, p. 574.


This exquisite copper is an extremely rare work by the idiosyncratic Emilian artist Lelio Orsi. The son of a painter, Orsi worked for much of his life in Reggio Emilia but in 1546, following accusations of his involvement in a murder plot, he fled back to his native Novellara. He stayed there for over a decade, traveling briefly to Venice in 1553 and to Rome in 1554-55. Orsi’s eccentric style successfully blends Correggio’s vivid use of colour, Raphael’s classicism, and the contorted forms of Michelangelo and Giulio Romano.

Although he was a prolific draughtsman and decorator, relatively few easel paintings by Orsi are known. This painting is unique in Orsi’s oeuvre, both for its subject matter and support: the use of copper is highly unusual. In a private communication, David Ekserdjian has pointed out that he believes this to be one of the earliest known paintings by any artist to use copper as a support and Vittoria Romani concurs, saying she is not aware of any documented works by Orsi on copper, nor of coppers by any other artist at such an early date.1 The sensuality of the subject matter, the preciosity of the copper support, and the intimate scale of the work all indicate that this painting was almost certainly commissioned by a private patron. The brilliant use of colour – bright blue sky with a burst of yellow above – and contorted mannerist forms are reminiscent of Correggio, whom Orsi much admired and emulated.2 Although dated to between 1546 and 1553 by Romani, who first published the picture, this copper has more recently been dated to shortly after 1560, by comparison with Orsi’s Conversion of Saint Paul drawings in Oxford and Cleveland, both of which are closely related to a Michelangelo design.3 A date of execution close to his Roman sojourn seems reasonable, given the overriding influence of Michelangelo and Raphael in this copper, but Orsi’s eccentric interpretation tempers the Michelangelesque tension and contortion of the figure of Diana with the Raphaelesque classicism and stillness of Leda. The neighing horses find parallels in Michelangelo and Giulio Romano, and resemble others in Orsi’s graphic oeuvre, further supporting a date of execution around 1560 or shortly afterwards.4

According to Greek mythology Leda – the wife of Tyndareus, king of Sparta – was seduced by Jupiter after he came to her by the river in the form of a swan. As a result of their union she laid an egg (or two, according to different accounts), from which hatched the heavenly twins Castor and Pollux, and the mortal Helen and Clytemnestra. The theme of Leda and the Swan, popular in classical antiquity but relatively rare in Cinquecento painting, is unique in Orsi’s own oeuvre. The two most famous Renaissance treatments of the subject by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo are lost and known to us today only through copies, drawings and engravings.5 These differ considerably in spirit from the present work, for in these Leda is shown as a willing participant in the seduction;

Leonardo’s Leda smiles and allows the swan to place its wing protectively around her, and Michelangelo’s Leda is in the throes of a passionate embrace and appears to be kissing the swan’s beak. Orsi’s treatment of the subject is unconventional and much more unsettling. First of all the setting is not terrestrial but celestial: where Leonardo places Leda in a lush landscape beside a river, Orsi’s Leda stands on a cloud, in a sky of the deepest blue. The episode was said to have taken place at night and the figures are bathed in a supernatural light.6 Leda, dwarfed by the enormous swan, surrenders to Jupiter; her vulnerability emphasized by the protective pose of her hunched back and bent legs. She makes no attempt to fight or scream, and the neighing horses and fretful hounds beside Diana provide the only expression for Leda’s silent anguish.

The classicizing pose of Leda, so in contrast with the mannerist treatment of Diana above, is not surprising given the artist’s frequent recourse to classical sources. Orsi was obviously captivated by antiquity: he copied the Torso Belvedere and used it for the man lower left in a drawing of the Allegory of Summer in the Louvre;7 and one of the Dioscuri forms the basis for the man leading the horse in the Conversion of Saint Paul drawings in Oxford and Cleveland.8 In this copper the distinctive poses of Leda and the swan derive from a classical relief (see fig. 1). A 17th-century engraving (see fig. 2) of the composition by Jan de Bisschop (1628-1671)9 is, like Lelio Orsi’s painting, most likely based on Roman models of the relief. Since Orsi probably first visited Rome in the 1540s and went there again in 1554-55, it is quite plausible that he saw a Roman copy of the bas-relief in Rome; something which would further support a date of execution for the copper circa 1560 or shortly afterwards. Although Leda and the swan’s positions directly derive from this relief, Orsi has made the design entirely his own: whilst Bisschop introduces a palm tree to the left of his engraved composition Orsi has retained the simplicity of the original design, increasing the drama by outlining Leda and the swan against a brilliant blue sky. This serves to emphasize Leda’s exposure and vulnerability, the rich flat colour of the background contrasting with the delicate modeling of both Leda’s flesh and the swan’s feathery texture.

Despite his idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable style, the corpus of Orsi’s firmly attributed paintings remains surprisingly small. This is probably due to the fact that Orsi was not given his due attention until the latter part of the 20th century – he only gets a brief mention by Malvasia in the 17th and by Tiraboschi in the 18th century – and this is even more surprising given his reputation, attested to by the epitaph on his tomb – ‘in architectura magno in pictura maiori et in deliniamentis optimo’.10

1 See Romani, under Literature, p. 38, footnote 55.
2 For Correggio’s influence on Orsi see, for example, the latter’s Ecce Homo in Montpelier, Musée Fabre, which closely resembles the painting of the same subject in the National Gallery, London, by Correggio (to whom the Montpelier picture was once attributed): see Frisoni, under Literature, p. 184, cat. no. 157, reproduced.
3 Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, inv. no. 422A, and Cleveland, The Cleveland Museum of Art, inv. no. 51.348; see Frisoni, op. cit., pp. 141-42, cat. nos. 125 and 126, both reproduced. Orsi’s interest in Michelangelo at this time also manifests itself in paintings copying Michelangelo’s designs: see, for example, Orsi’s Annunciation (private collection) that repeats a composition adopted by Marcello Venusti, after a Michelangelo drawing (Frisoni, ibid., p. 151 and p. 166, cat. no. 140, reproduced).
4 As well as the Oxford and Cleveland sheets, compare Orsi’s sheet of Fight between horses and Fight between lions and men on horseback, both in private collections: Frisoni, ibid., p. 145, cat. nos. 131 and 132, both reproduced.
5 Leonardo’s design, a source of inspiration also for his pupils Cesare da Sesto and Giampietrino, shows Leda standing and apparently smiling, with the swan’s wing drawn protectively behind her. Michelangelo’s interpretation also shows Leda as a willing participant: she reclines, with her left arm hanging limply beside her, and although the swan has forced itself upon her she gives in to the seduction, apparently without a fight despite her muscular body.
6 The goddess Diana, who was the daughter of Jupiter, symbolizes the moon (as the crescent on her forehead suggests).
7 Cabinet des Dessins, Louvre, Paris, inv. no. 10380; see M. Pirondini, in Monducci & Pirondini, under Literature, p. 56, cat. no. 11, reproduced.
8 Frisoni, op. cit., pp. 141-42, cat. nos. 125 and 126.

9 See Ekserdjian, under Literature, p. 539, reproduced fig. 61. The relief may also have been known to Cesare da Sesto, either directly or through contemporary engravings, for a similar composition (albeit with Leda’s head turned to the viewer) is recorded on a sheet in his sketchbook in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (see M. Carminati, Cesare da Sesto 1477-1523, Milan 1994, p. 252, cat. no. D28, reproduced).

10 ‘Great in architecture, better in painting, and best in drawing’; cited by Ekserdjian, op. cit., p. 539.

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