In Book IX: lxviii of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, the author tells a story about an unusual contest between Cleopatra VII Philipator (69-30BCE), and the triumvir of Rome, Marcus Antonius (83-30BCE).
|Nor, indeed, are these the most supreme evidences of luxury. There were formerly two pearls, the largest that had been ever seen in the whole world: Cleopatra, the last of the queens of Egypt, was in possession of them both, they having come to her by descent from the kings of the East. When Antony had been sated by her, day after day, with the most exquisite banquets, this queenly courtesan, inflated with vanity and disdainful arrogance, affected to treat all this sumptuousness and all these vast preparations with the greatest contempt; upon which Antony enquired what there was that could possibly be added to such extraordinary magnificence. To this she made answer, that on a single entertainment she would expend ten millions of sesterces. Antony was extremely desirous to learn how that could be done, but looked upon it as a thing quite impossible; and a wager was the result. On the following day, upon which the matter was to be decided, in order that she might not lose the wager, she had an entertainment set before Antony, magnificent in every respect, though no better than his usual repast. Upon this, Antony joked her, and enquired what was the amount expended upon it; to which she made answer that the banquet which he then beheld was only a trifling appendage to the real banquet, and that she alone would consume at the meal to the ascertained value of that amount, she herself would swallow the ten millions of sesterces; and so ordered the second course to be served. In obedience to her instructions, the servants placed before her a single vessel, which was filled with vinegar, a liquid, the sharpness and strength of which is able to dis- solve pearls. At this moment she was wearing in her ears those choicest and most rare and unique productions of Nature; and while Antony was waiting to see what she was going to do, taking one of them from out of her ear, she threw it into the vinegar, and directly it was melted, swallowed it. Lucius Plancus, who had been named umpire in the wager, placed his hand upon the other at the very instant that she was making preparations to dissolve it in a similar manner, and declared that Antony had lost—an omen which, in the result, was fully confirmed. The fame of the second pearl is equal to that which attends its fellow. After the queen, who had thus come off victorious on so important a question, had been seized, it was cut asunder, in order that this, the other half of the entertainment, might serve as pendants for the ears of Venus, in the Pantheon at Rome.*||nec haec summa luxuriae exempla sunt. duo fuere maximi uniones per omne aevum; utrumque possedit Cleopatra, Aegypti reginarum novissima, per manus orientis regum sibi traditos. haec, cum exquisitis cotidie Antonius saginaretur epulis, superbo simul ac procaci fastu, ut regina meretrix lautitiam eius omnem apparatumque obtrectans, quaerente eo, quid adstrui magnificentiae posset, respondit una se cena centiens HS absumpturam.
cupiebat discere Antonius, sed fieri posse non arbitrabatur. ergo sponsionibus factis postero die, quo iudicium agebatur, magnificam alias cenam, ne dies periret, sed cotidianam, Antonio apposuit inridenti computationemque expostulanti. at illa corollarium id esse et consumpturam eam cenam taxationem confirmans solamque se centiens HS cenaturam, inferri mensam secundam iussit. ex praecepto ministri unum tantum vas ante eam posuere aceti, cuius asperitas visque in tabem margaritas resolvit.
gerebat auribus cum maxime singulare illud et vere unicum naturae opus. itaque expectante Antonio, quidnam esset actura, detractum alterum mersit ac liquefactum obsorbuit. iniecit alteri manum L. Plancus, iudex sponsionis eius, eum quoque parante simili modo absumere, victumque Antonium pronuntiavit omine rato. comitatur fama unionis eius parem, capta illa tantae quaestionis victrice regina, dissectum, ut esset in utrisque Veneris auribus Romae in Pantheo dimidia eorum cena.
This extraordinary story is the subject of an enormous work by Giambattista Tiepolo: Banquet of Cleopatra (1743-1745). At 250.3 x 357 centimetres it takes up almost an entire end-wall of the NGV gallery space in which it hangs (it is currently on display in the “17th to 18th Century European Paintings Gallery” on Level 2), dwarfing those who came to stand before it, though the piece also has something of a trompe l’oeil effect. When Tiepolo paintings was housed within the great Palazzo Labia of mid-eighteenth century Venice, visitors were said to be unable to easily discern between the painted feasters, jokers and servants on the walls, and those in the room. This was partly due to the incredibly realism of Tiepolo’s figures, but also due to the attention he paid to the loggia where the feast is taking place. Tiepolo employed a master of perspective drawing to draw in the tiled floor with multiple vanishing points so that, as you move around in front of the painting, the floor still looks real.
According to Betty Churcher**, the painting was acquired by the NGV in 1933, after first being offered to the National Gallery in London by the Hermitage in Russia. The trustees of the National Gallery were offered the painting for £30,000 but they “couldn’t agree about the picture, and furthermore the Foreign Office didn’t want a London institution to help the Bolsheviks by supplying ready cash”.
Their loss was our gain. Two years later, in April 1933, the painting was offered to the Felton Bequest for the NGV for £25,000 (the final cost, with commissions and so on, was £31,250). Mr Sargent, the agent for the Felton Bequest, “remembers well how he carried payment made at the request of the vendor in bundles of small currency across Trafalgar Square in a suitcase” (quoted in Anderson***, p 175).
This is an astonishing painting: overwhelming, even. There are some beautiful commentaries on the painting, particularly in terms of how it sits in relation to Tiepolo’s other Cleopatra works, in Roberto Calasso’s book Tiepolo Pink (. In his discussion of the painting’s subject, Calasso notes:
The wager between the two lovers was about power. And Cleopatra proved that Oriental power, by then enfeebled, nonetheless went far further than the new Roman power. It is not enough to consider any thing as an object of conquest. It is also necessary to be prepared to destroy it in a totally arbitrary manner. Only pure destruction makes it possible to reach a higher level, inaccessible to mere power.
All of which is, I think, deeply fascinating when you consider the three black subjects of the painting. One standing just behind/to the left of Cleopatra as she prepares to drop her earring into her glass, and the other two of whom stand off to the left side of the painting: the taller man in a subtle echo of Cleopatra’s attendant in terms of his stance and the direction of his gaze.
Cleopatra’s arm and her attendant’s arm form a cross. He is placing (or, according to Churcher, removing) a gold plate from the table, but seems to have paused, his gaze fixed on the immeasurably valuable pearl. Cleopatra’s gaze, too, is directed at the pearl. While their arms cross, their gazes converge, but what different gazes they are. His head is tipped, and his eyes raised – a surreptitious looking. The look of a slave or a servant who knows too well the cost of being seen to be looking. And, perhaps, the look of a slave or servant who also knows only too well how the mighty Cleopatra and her consort have treated others with the same wasteful, careless disdain with which she treats the pearls. It is not only jewels, but also human beings, that Cleopatra has been ‘prepared to destroy in a totally arbitrary manner’.
And what about that other pair, on the edge of the painting. I mentioned before how perfectly his stance echoes that of his fellow slave/servant. They wear the same golden doublets, with pink lining inside their stiff, high collars, and short, slashed sleeves.. The same striped shirts underneath and, one presumes, the same golden leggings and plain shoes. Both appear to be wearing golden rings in their right ears.
While Cleopatra’s attendant is leaning towards the table with a gold plate in his hand, the subject on the far left edge of the painting has a silver plate under his arm. While Cleopatra’s attendant’s gaze is fixed on the central drama of the moment, the other servant/slave is engaged in a conversation with a dwarf, also, I think, a man of African heritage, in what appears to be a jester’s costume. The taller man’s arm seems to be suggesting the dwarf move forward, perhaps to the empty space at the front of the canvas, where he could perform for the feasters. The angle of his arm echoes that of Marcus Antonius’s, which is resting on the arm of his chair. As Churcher remarks, Antonius is ‘sitting back, superior and detached’ (151). And this tall fellow and his interlocutor seem, too, detached from the central drama of the pearl. Too concerned with their roles at the periphery of the action to bother with the antics of queens and potentates.
These three figures are some of the few non-white subjects in the historical works displayed on Level 2 of the NGV International. The only other I discovered was in the Rembrandt cabinet, and is part of a painting by seventeenth-century painting by the Flemish painter Jacob Huysmans (c. 1633-1696CE), Edward Henry Lee, 1st Earl of Lichfield, and his wife Charlotte Fitzroy as children. Another oil painting, though of more modest proportions, it was painted in about 1674. Charlotte was nine, and her fiancé ten years old when they were betrothed to each other: a politically expedient arranged marriage between the Catholic Lee (1663-1716) and the illegitimate daughter of Charles II and his mistress, Barbara Villiers. The painting has been in the NGV collection for only a few years, since 2012.
All very fascinating, but what interests me most is the third, unnamed, subject of the painting. A young man (I think) in a green robe, buttoned down the front, with pink silk lining. This subject is wearing a pair of drop earrings. Pearls which, if they are real, are as fabulous and valuable as the pair Cleopatra disposed of. While the two betrothed children face each other across a garden doorway, this third subject is turned away from the central drama of the painting. The plaque informs me that the peacock (a symbol of resurrection) and the gardener are subtly veiled references to ‘the Roman faith’. If so, our third subject is turning away from them, as is the horse with the golden bit in front of which he stands, towards some other point of interest outside the frame of the image.
The horse’s reins are hanging over the boy’s shoulder: I presume he is there to care for the horse and wait for his young master and mistress to require his services.
What are they looking towards, I wonder? They look … startled. Afraid. (That raised elbow and turned head, the shoulder lifted as if to defend the face, and the horse’s pricked ears and open mouth, its wild stare). Their gazes, like those of the Cleopatra and her attendant, seem to converge on some shared object, but this time, what the pale horse and the attendant look at is different. For one, their reactions seem alike, and it is also mysterious.
*The translation is by John Bostock, and was first published in 1855.
** Betty Churcher. Australian Notebooks. Melbourne. The Miegunyah Press, 2014
*** Jaynie Anderson. Tiepolo’s Cleopatra. Melbourne. Macmillan Press, 2003.