Sat at a grand table, Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt, is about to dissolve one of her priceless pearls in a goblet of vinegar, showing her contempt for wealth to the Roman general Mark Antony, who, dressed in red, recoils in surprise. The moment is described by the Roman historian Pliny in his Natural History (Book IX). The tension in the scene is increased by the efforts of the servant in the bottom left to control a fine white horse, and the onlookers watching in suspense.
Tiepolo painted Cleopatra’s banquet several times, and this small painting may be an early oil sketch for his famous fresco in the Palazzo Labia in Venice, which he completed in around 1746. As a preliminary study, his style is much looser than in his finished works, but he still uses a delicacy of colour in Cleopatra’s cream dress, the architectural details in subtle pinks and stronger tones of the onlookers' clothing.
This painting illustrates a story told by the Roman historian Pliny: at a banquet held for the Roman general Mark Antony, Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt, dissolved one of her priceless pearls in a goblet of vinegar and drank it (Natural History, Book IX). Here, she sits at the top of a flight of stairs framed by a classically inspired portico. Her hand is poised to drop the pearl, despite the glass still being on a tray nearby. Antony, wearing a red robe at the left, pulls back in surprise.
A servant in the bottom left-hand corner struggles to prevent a fine white horse from prancing into the room, increasing the tension in the scene. The court dwarf climbs the steps to tease a tiny dog, and this is balanced by the servant walking towards us at the other side; both lead our eye towards and frame the main scene. All the details are carefully realistic, like the crisp folds of the tablecloth or the onlookers’s expressions and body language as they wait for Cleopatra’s next move.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painted Cleopatra’s banquet several times, and this small painting may be an early oil sketch for his famous fresco in the Palazzo Labia in Venice, which he completed in around 1746 (although the scenes are slightly different and the finished work is a vertical composition). Because this work is a preliminary study, intended to show his patrons how he would decorate their room, Tiepolo’s style is much looser and more rapid than in his finished works. But he still achieves a delicacy of colour and a pale, atmospheric light similar to that in his fresco paintings. His sensitive approach to colour is apparent in the elegant cream silk of Cleopatra’s dress to the subtle pinks of the surrounding architecture and the stronger reds and yellows of the clothing worn by servants and onlookers.
Tiepolo may have taken inspiration for this subject from the work of his great Venetian predecessor Veronese, who painted grand banquet scenes with magnificent architectural settings, such as the Marriage at Cana (Louvre, Paris).
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