This painting, by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (c. 1696–1770), strives to re-create (albeit with some historically inaccurate wardrobe choices) an early encounter between one of the ancient world’s most famous power couples. As opposed to other iterations of this scene by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, in which he framed his characters and setting in different ways, this particular artwork focuses on Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in front of a ramp leading up to the deck of a ship. The woman standing tall in the white ornate dress is the artist’s depiction of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt (r. 51 BCE-30 BCE). Beside her, dressed in Romanesque military garb and holding the queen’s hand, is the artwork’s portrayal of 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 travel arrangements and 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, too, depicts Mark Anthony and Cleopatra having an encounter near a ship. In the painting, however, the ship is relegated to the background, obscured by Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the foreground, who are surrounded by their large respective entourages and bystanders. 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