The story of Mark Antony (83–30 BCE) and Cleopatra (69–30 BCE) was a popular subject for artists in the eighteenth century, for whom the ancient tale of the Roman consul and his relationship with the Egyptian queen provided narratives of romance, war, military splendour, tragedy and death. The love affair between Antony and Cleopatra also enabled artists to depict the classic opposites of male and female, West and East.
The episode represented in this painting is drawn from the Roman historian Pliny’s Historia naturalis (Natural History). Here Pliny recounted the tale of a famous contest between the Egyptian and Roman rulers, whereby Cleopatra wagered that she could stage a feast more lavish than the legendary excesses of Mark Antony. Tiepolo’s painting shows the dramatic moment at the end of Cleopatra’s sumptuous repast when, faced with a still scornful Mark Antony, she wins the wager by using her trump card. Removing one of a pair of priceless pearls that she wears as earrings, Cleopatra dissolves the pearl in a glass of vinegar and drinks it – an extravagance that causes Mark Antony to lose his bet.
Text by Dr Ted Gott from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 102.