Cleopatra, pearls and extravagance: Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra


When Boccaccio wrote his book, De Claris Mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women) (after 1351), Cleopatra was the epitome of Luxuria, that medieval vice pictured as a bejewelled naked women, the embodiment of extravagant lust. Hence Boccaccio’s description of her: 

Cleopatra having already acquired her kingdom through two crimes gave herself to her pleasures. Having become almost the prostitute of Oriental kings, and greedy for gold and jewels, she … stripped her lovers of these things with her art … [when] Antony was advancing towards Syria, she went to meet him and easily ensnared that lustful man with her beauty and wanton eyes. She kept him wretchedly in love with her …1G. Boccaccio, Concerning Famous Women, trans. G. A. Guarino, New Brunswick, N.J., 1964, p. 193. As a source it should be noted that a much-expanded Italian edition (Betussi and Serdonati) of Boccaccio’s Latin text and additional lives appeared in Florence in 1596.

By the mid eighteenth century she was pictured as one of the world’s great lovers brought to a tragic end; ‘She was more to be pitied then censured’ as the old music hall song had it. Thus Pompeo Batoni depicted her, in a highly improbable event, showing Antony, her new lover, the bust of Julius Caesar, his friend, rival, and predecessor in her arms (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon: 1773).2Matteo Bandello had clearly recognised the power of love in this context, for in one of his Novelle (1st edition, 1554) he remarks, ‘Though Julius Caesar conquered many kings, peoples, armies and commanders, Cleopatra conquered him’ (Part II, Novella XXVII). Even by the seventeenth century she had become a tragic figure, from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra of c.1607 to Dryden’s All for Love of 1677. In painting she is shown dying alone, half-naked, like an expiring Magdalen – a secular martyr like her Roman equivalent, Lucretia, as in Guercino’s work of 1648 (Palazzo Rossi, Genoa). 

Apart from her seduction of Julius Caesar and Antony it was her association with pearls which was the real reason for her early notoriety as Luxuria. As Pliny related, 

The first place and the topmost rank among all things of price is held by pearls … Their whole value lies in their brilliance, size, roundness, smoothness and weight … There have been two pearls that were the largest in the whole of history; both were owned by Cleopatra … they had come down to her through the hands of the kings of the East.3Pliny, Natural History, Loeb Edition, vol. Ill, pp. 235, 243. 

The East indeed, for, as Pliny knew, they came from molluscs found in the Indian Ocean. But Venus was also born from a shell, and the pearl was one of her attributes. Cleopatra knew this, for Plutarch describes how she sailed up the river, Cydnus, to meet Antony at Tarsus, reclining ‘beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Loves in paintings stood on either side and fanned her’.4Plutarch, Lives, Loeb Edition, vol. IX, p. 193. Earlier, at Ephesus, Antony had been hailed as Bacchus and fêted by girls dressed as Bacchantes. It was at Tarsus that Pliny placed the famous banquet. To outdo Antony’s pomp and splendour, Cleopatra wagered that 

she would spend ten million sesterces on a single banquet … she set before Antony a banquet that was indeed splendid … but of the kind served every day. – Antony laughing and expostulating at its niggardliness … [Cleopatra then] ordered the second course to be served … [and] the servants placed in front of her … a single vessel containing vinegar, the strong rough quality of which can melt pearls. She took one earring off and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was melted she swallowed it. Lucius Plancus, who was umpiring the wager, placed his hand on the other pearl, when she was preparing to destroy it also in a similar manner and declared that Antony had lost the battle. When [Cleopatra] was captured, the second of this pair of pearls was cut in two pieces, so that half a helping of the jewel might be in each of the ears of Venus in the Pantheon at Rome.5Pliny, op. cit., pp. 245–47. 

There is, of course, no vinegar that can dissolve pearls, so it is quite clear that Cleopatra swallowed the pearl, knowing she could get it back one way or another! Apart from this display of wanton extravagance, no Christian moralist could overlook the identification of Cleopatra as Venus and her association with the licentious identity of Antony as Bacchus. 

  

Even by the Renaissance Cleopatra was still labelled as Luxuria, but as one can see in Piero di Cosimo’s painting of Cleopatra (1505–10) (fig. 1) there are more sophisticated implications. The seasons depicted in the background are a watery winter and an earthy spring, representing in the former the melancholic humour and in the latter the choleric humour, personality traits which resemble Cleopatra’s career, the euphoria of power and love, and the depression of defeat and death. The asp about her neck also represents knowledge and duplicity, and, as it is almost in full circle, eternity; while the naked breasts and the pearls denote the medieval Luxuria. This is a Renaissance interpretation, since it is coloured by the understanding that Cleopatra was more than a greedy bawd. Whether or not (and it is disputed) this is also a portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, one of the ‘Graces’ of the Medici Court, the pearls in her hair also refer to an attribute of the Medici; there are pearls aplenty in Pagni’s painting of The Medici Madonna of 1533 (Ringling Museum, Sarasota) which commemorates the marriage of Catherine de’Medici to Henri d’Orleans, represented by the diadem of pearls of the Medici encircling the lilies of the Valois.6P. Tomory, Catalogue of the Italian Paintings, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 1976, no. 27. 

It was therefore the special significance of pearls for the Medici that led to their inclusion as one of the principal subjects in Lo Studiolo of Francesco I de’Medici. There in 1570–73 Alessandro Allori painted The pearl fishers, and below it the Banquet of Cleopatra (fig. 2). In Allori’s finished drawing for his composition, the action shown is unique, as far as I know, for here, according to Pliny, ‘Lucius Plancus, who was umpiring the wager, placed his hand on the other pearl, when she [Cleopatra] was preparing to destroy it also in a similar manner’.7See note 5. It is worth quoting that passage again, for, if one pearl dissolved was an extravagance, then to dissolve a second was a sheer extravagance – befitting a Medici. 

There was, however, another aspect of the banquet treated in Genoa, about ten years before. Two ceiling frescos were commissioned by Vincenzo Imperiali for his palazzo, one from Luca Cambiaso and the other from Battista Castello, as Imperiali had proposed they should work together in friendly rivalry. Cambiaso’s subject was Cleopatra dying beside the already dead Antony. That by Castello is unknown, since it was destroyed by a cannon-ball in 1684, but very probably it was the banquet of Cleopatra, thus fulfilling that Greek experience, Hubris – pride, followed by Nemesis – fate. Only Cambiaso’s drawing survives (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), his fresco being destroyed by another bomb in 1943.8B. S. Manning and W. Suida, Luca Cambiaso, Milan, 1958, p. 88, fig. 47. 

The first recorded Venetian composition (untraced) was probably painted about the same decade (c.1560–70) by Jacopo Bassano, a pioneer of banquet scenes, e.g. his Feast of dives (Art Museum, Cleveland). However, his composition possibly survives in a work signed by his son, Leandro (Jacopo’s sons were in the habit of repeating their father’s compositions), now in Stockholm (fig. 3). The drama here, however, is almost lost in the paraphernalia of the feast. 

 

Apart from the lost cycle dealing with Cleopatra by Paolo Piazza, which he painted in one of the rooms of the Villa Borghese,9G. Baglione, Le Vite de’Pittori, Scultori …, Rome, 1649, p. 161. The cycle of Antony and Cleopatra was painted on the walls of the great Salon of the Villa Borghese, but due to poor workmanship flaked off in a short time. there seems to have been little interest taken in the banquet scene until Sebastiano Mazzoni painted his Banquet of Cleopatra (Smithsonian Institute, Washington) (fig. 4) in 1660 for the Scuola dei Carmini as one of a lost cycle of paintings.10See the biographical note, The Baroque in Italy, Heim Gallery Catalogue, no. 11, London, 1978. There is no information as to the theme, but the half-naked Cleopatra and other indications of Oriental abandon, amply illustrating Boccaccio’s description, suggest that the painting was to serve as an example of worldly pride and depravity, since the members of the Scuola were not given to commissioning secular paintings. However, about that time in Venice (1662) Castrovillari composed his opera Cleopatra, but, since Dr Burney in his A General History of Music (1789) says he could not find the score for it, it is doubtful if it was still performed by the mid eighteenth century. 

It is more than likely that Tiepolo saw Mazzoni’s work, for he himself was given major commissions by the Scuola dei Carmini, which pressed him to paint religious, not secular, works, when he worked there in 1740–44, and, as Hoff has noted, Mazzoni’s composition, clearly based on Veronese’s banquet pictures, certainly seems to have influenced two other versions which Tiepolo painted of the banquet (National Gallery, London; and Arkhangelskoye) in 1747.11U. Hoff, European Painting and Sculpture before 1800, Melbourne, 3rd ed., 1973, p. 150. So it may be that the idea of painting the Melbourne Banquet of Cleopatra (fig. 5) came from the artist himself, but generally even artists need some additional impetus to take up a subject to that supplied by a work painted some eighty years before.   

First, and not unimportantly, was Giovanni Dolfin’s (Delfino) play Cleopatra, in performance from 1723 onwards in Venice, and published with three others in Padua in 1733.12Le Tragedie di Giovanni Delfino: La Cleopatra, La Lucrezia, Il Creso, Il Medoro, Padua, 1733. Giovanni Delfino (Dolfin) (1617–99) had a long-lived reputation, since his play La Lucrezia was written c.1656, and, apart from the Padua printing of his plays, La Cleopatra was published in S. Maffei, Il Teatro Italiano, III, Verona, 1723; all four plays appeared in a Utrecht printing of 1730. The play concerns the last days of Cleopatra, after the death of Antony (his ‘ghost’ appears in the first scene). In verse, the play was much praised at the time for its penetrating and sympathetic protrayal of Cleopatra’s character at the fateful close of her life. Since some observers have seen the Banquet of Cleopatra as symbolic of Venice, then the play would have augured that the last days of the glory of La Serenissima were truly numbered. 

Secondly comes a congeries of coincidences which connect Joseph Smith, merchant and British consul (1744), and now generally believed to have been the initial commissioner of the Melbourne Banquet; Francesco Algarotti, who interposed and secured the painting for the Elector of Saxony, for whom he was agent; and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, close friend of Algarotti and acquaintance of Joseph Smith. 

Lady Mary had arrived in Venice in September 1739, in the expectation of being joined there forever by Francesco Algarotti, for whom she had conceived a mature passion (she was very much his senior) when he had visited England. However, when Algarotti left London in June 1740 it was to Berlin, not Venice, that he went to serve Frederick, King of Prussia. Although they corresponded regularly, she with an understandable show of pique, they were not to meet until 1741 in Turin, and then only en passant, and her plan for their life together came to nothing. 

Lady Mary’s love for Algarotti can be gauged by comments in her letters to him, ‘I am a thousand times more to be pitied than the sad Dido, and I have a thousand more reasons to kill myself’ (10 September 1736), and ‘I have been the Penelope of your absence’ (11 July 1738). Thus with Algarotti already cast in the roles of Aeneas and Odysseus, it was not surprising, as will be seen, that in her letters to others Egypt seemed much on her mind. She remarked to her husband of the great attention paid her by the Venetian nobility, ‘if one of the Pyramids of Egypt had travelled, it could not have been more followed’ (25 September 1739); to Lady Pomfret (June 1740) she referred to the plagues that beset the palace of Pharoah. But more relevant to the subject here, in the previous month (17 May 1740), she had described to Lady Pomfret the regatta to honour the Prince of Saxony, ‘a magnificent show, as ever was exhibited since the galley of Cleopatra. Instead of her majesty we had some hundreds of Cleopatras in the windows and balconies.’13R. Halsband, The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford, 1966, vol. II, 1721–51, pp. 151–202 (all letters from Lady Mary in Venice quoted in the text by date). 

Apart from Dolfin’s play mentioned above, there was nothing in Venice with which to connect Cleopatra in such an enthusiastic fashion. There was, however, a connection with Algarotti, for he was working on his biography of Julius Caesar during 1739, 1740 and 1741, and in one of those years Lady Mary had written her own dramatic essay Caesar, which as Halsband has pointed out, owes much to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.14R. Halsband, ‘Algarotti as Apollo: His Influence on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’, Friendship’s Garland: Essays presented to Mario Praz, Oxford, 1966, vol. I, pp. 223–41; R. Halsband, The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford, 1956, ch. IX; R. Halsband and I. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Essays and Poems …, Oxford, 1977, p. 150. Since then, not only was she wont to identify herself with the heroines of antiquity, but she was addressed by her friend, Lord Hervey, as ‘Sappho’, and Pope (Moral Essays, Epistle II) had satirised her as such. The ancient Sappho had leapt off the cliff at Leocadia after the desertion of her lover, Phaon. It was thus a foregone conclusion that she should also assume the persona of Cleopatra, who was herself left bereft in Alexandria by her Imperial lover when he returned to Rome. There is little doubt that Lady Mary would have already read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and the accounts in Pliny and Plutarch for the description of Cleopatra’s galley as she sailed up to Tarsus. However, Lady Mary’s library was not with her in Venice, since she made arrangements for her husband (3 September 1740) to have her boxes of books (about 500 volumes in all) sent to Livorno, the port of Florence. It is certain that she had access to the extensive library of Joseph Smith, whose name she gives to her husband as a forwarding address in a letter (28 June 1740). Apart from his business dealings as an importer, Smith was active in publishing and commissioning and collecting pictures,15F. Haskell, Patrons and Painters, 2nd ed., New Haven, 1980, (on Joseph Smith) pp. 299–310, 406–7; (on Algarotti) pp. 347–60, 409–10. and, while there is no documented evidence, it seems reasonable to suspect that Lady Mary’s enthusiasm for Cleopatra and of course Caesar, was known to him. 

One further coincidence is worth noting. In that same regatta during which Lady Mary Montagu saw so many Cleopatras, she also noted in a letter to her husband (1 June 1740), ‘Signor Angelo Labbia [sic] represented [with his galley] Poland crowning of Saxony …’ This was not only an astute political gesture to the visiting Prince of Saxony, but in 1742 Algarotti was to take up service with Augustus III, Elector of Saxony, charged with collecting paintings for the Dresden Gallery. 

That so many facsimiles of the Egyptian Queen could be observed by Lady Mary is borne out by Philippe Monnier’s observation that the gentlewomen of Venice had become the courtesans, and the courtesans fallen to the rank of prostitute, ‘These gentlewomen were … extolled by poets, served by princes, loved by a whole century. To a kind of zany grace they had added an air of dissipation and fantasy. In an instant they could appear draped in pearls, garnets and roses.’16Ρ. Monnier, Venise au XVIIIe Siècle, Paris, 1911, pp. 82, 90. The leading lady of this ensemble of Cleopatras was, undoubtedly, Maria Labia, whose jewellery was described by Charles de Brosses (in Venice 1737 and 1740) as one of the sights of Italy.17W. C. Hazlitt, The Venetian Republic: Its Rise, Its Growth, Its Fall 421–1797, 4th ed. 1915, vol. II, p. 823 (Charles de Brosses, Lettres d’ltalie).

Moreover, the Labia were notoriously extravagant, joining in the competition of trying to outdo their rivals in giving the most expensive banquets. On one occasion a Labia threw all the gold plates on the table into the canal, crying ‘Labia ο non I’abia, saro sempre Labia’ (‘Whether I have it or don’t have it, I shall always be a Labia’).18H. Honour, The Companion Guide to Venice, London, 1965, p. 206; F. Haskell, op. cit., pp. 256–57. As a matter of Interest, Agostino Chigi, Raphael’s patron, was in the habit of doing this from the terrace of the Villa Farnesina, but he took the precaution of having a net fixed below the surface of the Tiber so that he could recover this dinner service; and Rollin in his The Roman History (in French and English by 1740) records how Cleopatra was wont to give Antony ‘all the vessels of gold adorned with precious stones, with which the sideboards were ornamented’,19C. Rollin, The Roman History …, London, 1739 (1st English ed.); quotation from 2nd ed., 1754, vol. XV, p. 215. presumably when she had Antony safely in her net. So we know that the Labia would recover their gold plate – one way or another.

It is hardly to be questioned that, in this Alexandrine ambience, Joseph Smith’s thoughts should have turned in 1743 (or perhaps earlier), to commissioning from Tiepolo a Banquet of Cleopatra, and that Algarotti should have persuaded Smith to forego his commission in favour of the Elector of Saxony, and that the Labia ordered the fresco of the same subject from the artist in 1747. It is pure surmise, but could Joseph Smith have intended his commission for the Labia in the first place to be a gift in return for some business favour? Legend has it that Maria Labia sat for the head of Cleopatra. Although this is not true, it might have stemmed from a Labia connection with Smith’s commission, and, remembering the theme of their galley in the regatta, that they too, like Smith, were willing to cede for good business reasons.

Such laudatory or satirical identification, however, was much in vogue in the eighteenth century, the latter exemplified in Reynolds’ portrait of Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra dissolving the pearl (Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, London, 1759), the lady being a notorious courtesan celebrated for her extravagance. 

To offset Boccaccio’s condemnatory description quoted at the beginning, it is fitting to close with a quotation from Ε. M. Forster’s Alexandria: A History and a Guide (first published 1922): 

It is impossible to think of the later Cleopatra as an ordinary person … voluptuous but watchful she treated her new lover as she had treated her old. She never bored him, and since grossness means monotony she sharpened his mind to those more delicate delights, where sense verges into spirit.20Ε. M. Forster, Alexandria: A History and a Guide, New York, 1961, p. 28. 

Or, I might add, a pearl dissolves into legend. 

Peter Tomory, Professor of Art History, La Trobe University (in 1982).

Notes

1          G. Boccaccio, Concerning Famous Women, trans. G. A. Guarino, New Brunswick, N.J., 1964, p. 193. As a source it should be noted that a much-expanded Italian edition (Betussi and Serdonati) of Boccaccio’s Latin text and additional lives appeared in Florence in 1596. 

2          Matteo Bandello had clearly recognised the power of love in this context, for in one of his Novelle (1st edition, 1554) he remarks, ‘Though Julius Caesar conquered many kings, peoples, armies and commanders, Cleopatra conquered him’ (Part II, Novella XXVII). 

3          Pliny, Natural History, Loeb Edition, vol. Ill, pp. 235, 243. 

4          Plutarch, Lives, Loeb Edition, vol. IX, p. 193. 

5          Pliny, op. cit., pp. 245–47. 

6          P. Tomory, Catalogue of the Italian Paintings, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 1976, no. 27. 

7          See note 5. 

8          B. S. Manning and W. Suida, Luca Cambiaso, Milan, 1958, p. 88, fig. 47. 

9          G. Baglione, Le Vite de’Pittori, Scultori …, Rome, 1649, p. 161. The cycle of Antony and Cleopatra was painted on the walls of the great Salon of the Villa Borghese, but due to poor workmanship flaked off in a short time. 

10         See the biographical note, The Baroque in Italy, Heim Gallery Catalogue, no. 11, London, 1978. 

11         U. Hoff, European Painting and Sculpture before 1800, Melbourne, 3rd ed., 1973, p. 150. 

12         Le Tragedie di Giovanni Delfino: La Cleopatra, La Lucrezia, Il Creso, Il Medoro, Padua, 1733. Giovanni Delfino (Dolfin) (1617–99) had a long-lived reputation, since his play La Lucrezia was written c.1656, and, apart from the Padua printing of his plays, La Cleopatra was published in S. Maffei, Il Teatro Italiano, III, Verona, 1723; all four plays appeared in a Utrecht printing of 1730. 

13         R. Halsband, The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford, 1966, vol. II, 1721–51, pp. 151–202 (all letters from Lady Mary in Venice quoted in the text by date). 

14         R. Halsband, ‘Algarotti as Apollo: His Influence on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’, Friendship’s Garland: Essays presented to Mario Praz, Oxford, 1966, vol. I, pp. 223–41; R. Halsband, The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford, 1956, ch. IX; R. Halsband and I. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Essays and Poems …, Oxford, 1977, p. 150. 

15         F. Haskell, Patrons and Painters, 2nd ed., New Haven, 1980, (on Joseph Smith) pp. 299–310, 406–7; (on Algarotti) pp. 347–60, 409–10. 

16         Ρ. Monnier, Venise au XVIIIe Siècle, Paris, 1911, pp. 82, 90. 

17         W. C. Hazlitt, The Venetian Republic: Its Rise, Its Growth, Its Fall 421–1797, 4th ed. 1915, vol. II, p. 823 (Charles de Brosses, Lettres d’ltalie). 

18         H. Honour, The Companion Guide to Venice, London, 1965, p. 206; F. Haskell, op. cit., pp. 256–57. 

19         C. Rollin, The Roman History …, London, 1739 (1st English ed.); quotation from 2nd ed., 1754, vol. XV, p. 215. 

20         Ε. M. Forster, Alexandria: A History and a Guide, New York, 1961, p. 28.