The story of Mark Antony (83–30 BC) and Cleopatra (69–30 BC) was a popular subject for artists in the 18th century. Both Antony and Cleopatra were powerful leaders. Cleopatra was the seventh and last queen of Egypt who enjoyed a life of refinement and luxury. Mark Antony was the Roman consul whose legendary extravagances included feasts where he would gorge himself on rare foods. The story of their love affair involved romance, war, military splendour, tragedy and death (Gott 2003, p. 102).

The episode represented in Giambattista Tiepolo’s The banquet of Cleopatra was written by the Roman historian Pliny in AD 77. As Gott (2003, p.102) notes, it tells of a famous contest between the Egyptian and Roman rulers. Cleopatra wagered that she could stage a feast more lavish than those of Mark Antony. Tiepolo’s painting shows the dramatic moment at the end of the meal when she removes one of a pair of rare, priceless pearls that she wears as earrings, and drops it in a glass of vinegar and drinks it.

Lucius Plancus, the third figure at the table, was umpiring the wager. He declared Cleopatra the winner of the bet and stopped her destroying the second pearl.

While Tiepolo’s painting is based on a historical story and includes visual references to ancient Egypt and Rome, Tiepolo has painted Cleopatra in contemporary dress.

Classroom discussion:

  • Explain how Tiepolo has composed this painting to focus our attention on the key aspects of the story. Consider in your answer use of light and colour, the placement of figures and architectural elements, and the use of perspective.
  • Describe the facial expressions and gestures of three characters in the painting who you believe play an important role in conveying the story.
  • Identify references to ancient Egypt and Rome in the painting.
  • Suggest why Tiepolo may have included contemporary references in his painting of this historical story.

T. Gott in T. Gott, L. Benson & contributors, 20th Century Painting and Sculpture in the International Collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003.