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Leda and the Swan: Rabelais's Parody of Michelangelo

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

Francois Rigolot
Princeton University


“oysons bridez … et aultres telles painctures contrefaictes à plaisir pour exciter le monde à rire.” (Gargantua, Prologue)

It is no novelty to stress the paradistic aspects of Rabelais's style. As early as 1915, Emile Besch had described Gargantua and Pantagruel as “une parodie des romans de chevalerie,” and this broad critical assessment has not really been seriously challenged ever since. Yet most of the studies devoted to Rabelais's comical imitations seem to concentrate either on what he owes to the ancient, medieval or humanistic tradition, or on the specific techniques through which he mocks or distorts various genres, modes or styles. More specifically, very little attention has been paid so far to Rabelais's attitude vis-à-vis art works of his time, although we know very well that, like many other contemporary writers, he had a keen interest in pictorial compositions.

Research Article
Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 1985

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1 Cf. A. Kibédi Varga, “Le roman est un anti-roman,” Litterature, 48 (December, 1982), 12.

2 I have not found a single mention of parody of paintings in Rabelaisian scholarship. In his “Rabelais et la parodie,” Raymond Lebègue lists twelve categories ranging from monkish jokes to contrived imitations of high-flown style; but he remains silent about possible deflations of pictorial representations. Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance, 14 (1952), 193-204.

3 Pantagruel, chapter V. Oeuvres complètes, ed. by P. Jourda (Paris, 1962), I, 240.

4 About Rabelais’ stay at Maillezais, see Plattard, J., L'Adolescence de Rabelais en Poitou (Paris, 1923)Google Scholar and the Introduction to Abel Lefranc's edition of the Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1922), vol. III.

5 Cf. Knecht, R. J., Francis I (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 264-70Google Scholar.

6 “Avant 1525 (Francis I) possédait une notable quantité de peintures de la haute Renaissance, florentine et romaine.” After 1530, “les achats et commandes d'oeuvres par le Roi vont croître de façon impressionnante en nombre et en variété.” Cox-Rearick, J., La Collection de François Ier (Paris, 1972), pp. 7 and 8Google Scholar.

7 Bérence, Fred, Michel-Ange, ou la volonté de puissance (Paris, 1947), p. 355 Google Scholar.

8 This lascivious painting was probably destroyed upon orders by Anne of Austria between 1638 and 1643. For more information about this painting see Vasari, G., La Vita di Michelangelo, edited by P. Barocchi (Milan, 1962), III, 1104-22Google Scholar. I wish to thank Eugene A. Carroll for this important reference.

Natalie Z. Davis has drawn my attention on another example, though perhaps a more problematic one, of a connection between Michelangelo's painting and the city of Lyons in the 1530's. It is to be found in the emblem of the Aumúne-Générale which represents a seated woman, surrounded by children, with a pelican feeding its own progeny and perched on her head (see illustration, reproduced from Davis, N. Z., Sociefy and Culture in Early Modern France [Stanford, 1975]Google Scholar, Plate 2, between pp. 188 and 189): All inconographers will agree that the woman and the bird are two well-known symbols of charity. Gargantua's emblem also represents charity, with the combination of the Androgyny and Saint Paul's Greek motto: “Charity seeks not its own” (Gargantua, chapter VIII). Yet what is most important to us here is the fact that, as Edgar Wind has shown, Michelangelo had used the motif of the seated Charity (“Charity: the Case History of a Pattern,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute, 11(1948], 68-86) and that this motif was known to Santo Pagnini, the co-founder of the Aumône-Générale, who had been acquainted with Michelangelo in Italy (“Santo Pagnini and Michelangelo,” Gazette des Beaux Arts, 26 [1944], 211-35). Cf. Davis, Society and Culture, pp. 56 and 289, n. 163.

9 These letters have been published and translated into French by Leon Dorez in his “Nouvelles recherches sur Michel-Ange et son entourage,” Bibliotheque de I'Ecole des Chartes, 77 (1916).

10 Dorez, pp. 457-58.

11 Gargantua, ed. by R. Calder & M. A. Screech (Geneva-Paris, 1970), p. 93. All pages given between brackets in the text refer to this edition.

12 Horace, Ars Poetica (Loeb Classical Library, London, 1955), p. 450, quoted in Pantagruel, chapter V.

13 “Transformer un objet en torchecul, c'est avant tout le rabaisser, le détrôner, l'anéantir.” L'Oeuure de F. Rabelais et la culture populaire au Moyen Age et sous la Renaissance (Paris, 1970), “Le bas matériel et corporel chez Rabelais,” pp. 369-70.

14 About the Neoplatonic interpretation of Michelangelo's Leda see de Tolnay, C., The Medici Chapel (Princeton, 1948)Google Scholar, vol. III. “The representation, so obviously sensual and daring in its subject matter and objective motif is ( … ) removed into the sphere of austere purity. The action is spiritualized, because physical love is conceived as merely a reflex of an internal dream-event, and it is at the same time removed from the earthly and elevated to the universally valid and eternal ( … ) . Michelangelo renounced the sensual beauty of the epidermis and the transitoriness of movement: he has created an archetype of the act of love.” P. 106. It is difficult to say whether Rabelais had this sublimated interpretation in mind when he decided to make his parody.

15 Although the original painting is now lost, most scholars agree that Bos's engraving is a faithful reproduction. Cf. Wilde, J., “Notes on the Genesis of Michelangelo's Leda ,” Fritz Saxl 1890-1948: A Volume of Memorial Essays from His Friends in England (London, 1957), p. 278 Google Scholar. I wish to thank John Shearman for bringing this reference to my attention.

15 Metamorphoses, Book VI, line 109.

17 Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated by Mary M. Innes (London, 1982), p. 137.

18 “Leda makes Jove my father, deceived by the Swan, false bird she cherished in her trusting bosom.” This is the translation given by the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), p. 229.

19 Seenote 15.

20 Wind, Edgar, Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance (New Haven, 1958), p. 140 Google Scholar. In Wind's book one finds a picture of Leda and a swan in exactly the same position on a Roman tomb; and Wind notes that this was a common funerary motif. Contrary to what has been suggested to me by several readers, I do not believe that Rabelais meant his readers to think also of this image from ancient Rome. Rabelais's first trip to Italy took place in January, 1534, only afterhe had finished his Gargantua.

21 Cf. Tetel, M., Rabelais (New York, 1967), pp. 23 Google Scholar and 38.

22 Cf. Kretzulesco-Quaranta, E., Les Jardins du songe: Poliphile et la mystique de la Renaissance (Paris and Rome, 1976), pp. 242 and 244Google Scholar.

23 Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, ed. by G. Pozzi and L. A. Ciapponi (Padua, 1964), I, 156, 158-59.

24 Cf. Thuasne, L., “Rabelais et Francesco Colonna,” in his Etudes sur Rabelais (Paris, 1904), pp. 267314 Google Scholar.

25 See V.-L. Saulnier's response to Abel Lefranc's position on this question: “Je ne vois pas en Rabelais un publiciste royal.” Le Dessein de Rabelais (Paris, 1957), p. 8.

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