Sumptuous feast

Tiepolo (1696–1770) in 1743–44 has long been a showpiece of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). It has recently undergone conservation and cleaning in time for its generously spaced rehanging in a striking position in the recently reopened St Kilda Road premises.

The painting is grand in both scale (249x346 cm) and imagery, and depicts the sumptuous feast where Cleopatra outclassed her lover Marc Antony in their wager of excess. Challenging each other to spend the most on a single banquet, Cleopatra became the winner by dissolving a precious pearl in vinegar and drinking it. Tiepolo shows an extravagantly-clothed blonde-haired Cleopatra seated opposite Lucius Plancus, keeper of the bet, dressed in a luxurious Eastern styled outfit trimmed with furs. Antony, in Roman military splendour, is seated with his back to the viewer, his profile turned to Cleopatra who holds aloft the pearl. The position of the various figures, together with the grid-patterned floor, draw the viewer’s eye to this pivotal point.

The painting was acquired by the NGV in 1933 through the Felton Bequest and was an expensive purchase at the time at $25,000. A favourable article appeared in Art in Australia  in 1933, which included a full-page colour reproduction and an extensive citation from Pliny’s Natural Historie of the World relating the depicted episode and outlining the ‘romantic history’ of the painting which was once owned by Augustus III (1696–1763), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.

The article, perhaps written to persuade the public that it was money well spent, quotes from a similarly motivated letter from the King’s ambassador, Algarotti, written from Venice in 1744, to Count Bruhl, ‘a powerful minister of the king and an ardent art collector saying that he had persuaded M. Tiepolo to finish the picture for his Majesty and described it as the “most beautiful, noblest and richest that the modern schools can produce”’.

Those wishing to discover more about this impressive painting will be delighted by Tiepolo’s Cleopatra. This new book written by Jaynie Anderson (Herald Chair of Fine Arts and Head of the School of Fine Arts, Classical Studies and Archaeology, Melbourne University) takes the reader on a detailed exploration of the painting. The book is an impressive publication; a large format hardback with glossy pages,  numerous full colour illustrations and a full list of illustrations, bibliography and index. It is indeed a luxury for such a book to be produced about a single painting. The text is divided into four clear sections on different themes. The division into sections allows the reader to either focus, or merely dip into those areas of interest.

The first section looks at the story of Cleopatra, citing examples in literature and art over time including works that may have been of influence to Tiepolo. This section also gives great attention to the episode of the banquet itself, including other versions by Tiepolo and other artists, and examines Tiepolo’s various renderings of Cleopatra throughout his career.

The second section draws attention to the historical context of the painting, relating how the work came to be commissioned and painted, and outlining the role of Algarotti. This section also details a number of Tiepolo’s drawings and sketches, examining their relation to the NGV’s Cleopatra’s Banquet. Anderson also looks at other banquet paintings by Tiepolo and other artists who have been influenced by him. Among the latter are the wonderful Cecil Beaton photographs of an extravagant ball, inspired by Tiepolo’s fresco paintings of Cleopatra and Antony in an Italian palazzo.

The third section investigates the intriguing history of the actual painting, its owners, and how it came to Melbourne in 1933, purchased from the Soviet government.

The fourth section is written by John Payne and Carl Villis, conservators at the NGV who worked on the recent restoration of the painting.

The text reveals thorough research, going into great detail in each of the various aspects, and is supported with many reference notes. However, it remains agreeably written in an accessible style.
A highlight of the publication is the many illustrations, sourced from paintings and drawings around the world, and featuring a generous number of details of the NGV painting. This intimate focus allows a greater appreciation of the painting and encourages a desire to gaze at length at the painting itself.

Tiepolo’s Banquet is an engaging read that will appeal to many beyond those with an interest in art history while the generous number of illustrations will appeal to the coffee table book buyer. The balance of the scholarly, yet accessible style and the abundance of quality images makes this book a rich feast for any reader.  

Tiepolo’s Cleopatra, Jaynie Anderson. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. isbn 1 876 832 44 4, rrp $99
The Banquet of Cleopatra and Antony painted by Giovanni Battista

Ruth Lovell is at Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, Melbourne.



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