Giambatista Tiepolo’s: The Banquet of Cleopatra

“Rococo painting, which originated in early 18th century Paris, is characterized by soft colors and curvy lines, and depicts scenes of love, nature, amorous encounters, light-hearted entertainment, and youth.” Rococo stems from ‘rocaille’, a French term for rock. Rocaille means the shell-work in lawn fissures and is used as an eloquent word for the complex patterns seen in the Ornate Arts of the Rococo period.

The story of Mark Antony (a Roman politician who played an important role in the revolution of the Roman Republic from an oligarchy into the dictatorial Roman Empire), and Cleopatra was an important theme for artists in the eighteenth century, for whom the earliest stories of the Roman emissary and his link to the Egyptian queen provided stories of love, warfare, soldierly magnificence, heartbreak and loss. The love affair between Antony and Cleopatra also allowed artists to uncover the opposites of male and female, West and East.

The image painted signifies Roman historian Pliny’s Historia naturalis (Natural History). Pliny narrated the story of a renowned contest amongst the Egyptian and Roman monarchs, whereby Cleopatra bet that she could hold a feast larger than Mark Antony’s feast.

Tiepolo shows the dramatic moment at the end of Cleopatra’s feast when, faced with a still scornful Mark Antony, she wins the wager with her trump card. Removing one of a pair of priceless pearl earrings, Cleopatra dissolves it in a glass of vinegar and drinks it, thereby causing Mark Antony to lose his bet.

In any painting there is always an underlying story: behind “The banquet of Cleopatra”, the story that Giambatista envisioned (which does contain prehistoric fables, legends and religions as old truths completely rendered to modern day fashions) and the story of its procurement by a benefactor, diverse fluctuations and concluding dormant place. This miniscule painting may have been an early draft for the decoration of Tiepolo’s infamous frescoed chamber in the Palazzo Labia in Venice, painted in 1745.

The National Gallery celebrated The Banquet of Cleopatra by Tiepolo is a perfect case to hand. One of the most acquisitive monarchs of the 18th century was Russia’s Catherine the Great whose minions combed Europe for art for her private collection. In 1744, the year it was completed, The Banquet of Cleopatra originally earmarked for an English collector who later became the British Consul in Venicehad been re-directed by the efforts of Francesco Algarotti: a wealthy Venetian jocularity, and business tycoon, buddy of Voltaire and confidante of Frederick the Great.

In the best tradition of court painters, Tiepolo has flattered the patrons by re-inventing them in their contemporary garments and surroundings as historical characters. This would explain why the Labia’s Cleopatra has pale skin, is dressed in the height of Italian 18th centuryfashion and festooned with pearls and gold-mounted cameos. There are many similarities between the Labia’s Cleopatra and the National Gallery of Victoria’s. Both are blonde, blue-eyed, and similarly attired in voluminous brocade. Both sit at the banquet table holding the giant pearl aloft and at arm’s length. Both are surrounded by a well-dressed retinue of exotic characters. Even the halberds and the flute of vinegar are from the same prop department.

The Melbourne painting would the subject of much vindictiveness. The thought of spending £31,375 on “a mediocre Tiepolo” appeared to connect both the conventional and the modernist art worlds, and the newspapers had a day and a half. The Melbourne Herald ran a story titled “Is the Gallery 50 years behind?” the following year, but today the painting is universally regarded as one of the finest prizes ever acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria and its worth is conservatively considered by many to be in the scores of millions.

The Banquet of Cleopatra was purchased directly from Tiepolo’s Venice studio in early 1744, by Count Francesco Algarotti (1712–1764), for Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony. Attached to the royal court of Saxony, Algarotti had in 1742 presented the elector with a proposal to revitalize the royal galleries at Dresden, through the acquisition of a small selection of modern paintings to complement the old masters already in the collection. Frederick Augustus approved this proposition, and Algarotti set about finding appropriate works for purchase. The paintings of Tiepolo, one of the most renowned contemporary artists working in Europe at the time, were an obvious choice. Surviving documents tell us that on 10 February 1744 Count Algarotti paid for a frame for the Banquet of Cleopatra. On 5 March the artist was paid three hundred zecchini for the painting, which was then dispatched to Dresden (and, subsequently, to the elector’s hunting lodge at Hubertusburg), remaining in the royal collections of Saxony until 1765. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the Banquet of Cleopatra had entered the Russian imperial collections, and was for a time hung on a ceiling in the Mikhailovsky Castle in St Petersburg. Later the painting was transferred to the Hermitage Palace, remaining there until sold to the National Gallery of Victoria, by the Soviet authorities, in 1932.

The subject is from the ‘Natural History’ of Pliny and shows Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, about to dissolve one of her famous pearls in a cup of wine, thus expressing her contempt for wealth to Mark Anthony, who recoils in surprise.

As in the banquet scenes of Veronese, which were a strong influence on Tiepolo, the architecture and the figures of the attendants enhance the effect of splendour. The viewpoint is low and the table is set on a dais between matching buildings with terraces for spectators. In the foreground a servant removes a tray and Anthony’s horse is held in check by a groom.

11 three large compositions show the banquet taking place in the open air or a loggia with a grand architectural setting but with the sky visible, and include a raised terrace closing off the back of the pictorial space. In the Palazzo Labia and Arkhangelskoye paintings (and the Paris and London modelli) there are steps in the foreground leading up to the dining table; although the Melbourne painting lacks these steps, the pattern of the marble floor gives a similar visual effect. Only the two or three main figures are seated, but various attendants stand around them. All the compositions show a clear debt to the grandly theatrical feast paintings of Paolo Veronese, nearly a century earlier, such as The Wedding at Cana (1563, Louvre) and The Feast in the House of Levi (1573, Accademia, Venice). Venetian taste approved of such explicit reference to the city’s artistic tradition.[4] In the Palazzo Labia the frescos were designed in conjunction with a scheme of trompe l’oeil architecture by Gerolamo Mengozzi Colonna embracing the whole space. The frescos come almost down to the floor, so that the steps bring the main scene up to a height where they could be seen across a crowded room.

The love affair between the Roman consul Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra was a popular subject for artists in the eighteenth century. The episode represented in Tiepolo’s painting is drawn from Pliny’s Natural History (written in AD 77). Here Pliny recounted the tale of a famous contest between the Egyptian and Roman rulers whereby Cleopatra wagered that she could stage a feast more lavish than the legendary excesses of Mark Antony.

The Banquet of Cleopatra was purchased directly from Tiepolo’s Venice studio in early 1744, by Count Francesco Algarotti, for Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. The artist was paid three hundred zecchini for the painting, which was then dispatched to Dresden (and, subsequently, to the elector’s hunting lodge at Hubertusburg), remaining in the royal collections of Saxony until 1765. However, by the turn of the nineteenth century, The Banquet of Cleopatra had entered the Russian imperial collections, and was for a time placed on a ceiling within the Mikhailovsky Palace in St Petersburg. Later it was transferred to the Hermitage Palace, where it remained until sold to the National Gallery of Victoria by the Soviet authorities in 1932.

Giambatista’s painting displays the over-the-top instant at the end of Cleopatra’s splendid banquet, challenged with a contemptuous Mark Antony, she triumphs the bet by using her trump card. She takes off one of the pearls from her earrings, she softens the pearl in a vinegar-filled glass and chugs it. This is what caused Mark to lose his bet.

This painting wasn’t the first painting done of Cleopatra and her many famous acts. There are many attributes with another Cleopatra painting he was contracted to paint in a series of frescoes for a very affluent family, “the Labias”.

Cleo’s banquet table is set out in front of an entryway, of where behind you can see the sails of the Raman fleet. The rather inactive gathering of the focal characters is undisturbed by the sardonic placement in the forefront of the dog and the dwarf, who strains himself with inconveniency up the steps towards the table.

Cleopatra’s exposed décolleté is meant as a reference to the by now advanced stage of her relationship with Antony. In contrast to Tiepolo’s Melbourne picture of the same subject, the erotic and witty interpretation of historical events is given prominence over the festive setting itself.

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