This painting, by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (c. 1696–1770), strives to re-create (albeit with historically inaccurate wardrobes) an early encounter between one of the ancient world’s most famous power couples. Standing in a yellow dress with the large white collar is Queen Cleopatra of Egypt (r. 51 BCE-30 BCE). In front of her, seen kissing the queen’s hand, is the prominent Roman general and triumvir, Mark Antony (c. 83-30 BCE). Inspiration for this scene was likely drawn from elaborate ancient descriptions recorded about Cleopatra and Antony’s romance, such as this passage from the biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120), who described an encounter between Antony and Cleopatra at the Cydnus (Berdan) River. He wrote:
“She came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a painting, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight. The market-place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone sitting upon the tribunal” (Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, Life of Antony, chapter 26).
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s painting, in contrast to Plutarch’s description, is much more landlocked in its scope. Pieces of a ship, however, can be seen in the background, with the stern and the mast of the vessel peeking out from behind the buildings and people at the forefront of the painting. After this encounter (or at least after the encounter that Plutarch described), the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra advanced in the natural way—they planned a dinner date. Impressively, at that later meetup, the banquet that Cleopatra prepared was said to have been even more extravagant than the luxurious barge on which she had sailed down the Cydnus.
Written by C. Keith Hansley