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.


  • Title: The Banquet of Cleopatra
  • Creator: Giambattista Tiepolo
  • Date Created: (1743-1744)
  • Physical Dimensions: 250.3 x 357.0 cm (Unframed)
  • Type: Paintings
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1933, =A9 National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Provenance: Commissioned c. 1743 possibly by Consul Joseph Smith (c. 1675–1770); ceded to Count Francesco Algarotti, agent of Augustus III (1697–1763), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland; with the Royal Gallery, Dresden, 1744; (removed to the Royal Hunting Lodge at Hubertusburg, c. 1746); sale of the works from the collection of the Royal House of Saxony, Arnoldus Dankmeijer, Amsterdam, 22 May 1765, no. 54; from where purchased by Pierre Yver (dealer), 1765; collection of behalf of Catherine II of Russia (1729–96), before 1796; thence to Tsar Paul I in 1796, St Petersburg; there used as a ceiling painting in Michael Castle until 1801 when the painting was moved to the Hermitage; recorded in the inventory of the collection of the Hermitage, 1859, 1891 (on display 1864); offered for sale through Colnaghi's (dealer), London, by 1932; from where acquired, on the advice of Randall Davies, for the Felton Bequest, 1932; exhibited Imperial Institute Buildings, City of Manchester Art Gallery, and National Gallery, London, 1932; arrived Melbourne, 1933.
  • Additional information: The Banquet of Cleopatra was purchased directly from Tiepolo’s Venice studio in early 1744, by Count Francesco Algarotti (1712–1764), for Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony. Attached to the royal court of Saxony, Algarotti had in 1742 presented the elector with a proposal to revitalize the royal galleries at Dresden, through the acquisition of a small selection of modern paintings to complement the old masters already in the collection. Frederick Augustus approved this proposition, and Algarotti set about finding appropriate works for purchase. The paintings of Tiepolo, one of the most renowned contemporary artists working in Europe at the time, were an obvious choice. Surviving documents tell us that on 10 February 1744 Count Algarotti paid for a frame for the Banquet of Cleopatra. On 5 March the artist was paid three hundred zecchini for the painting, which was then dispatched to Dresden (and, subsequently, to the elector’s hunting lodge at Hubertusburg), remaining in the royal collections of Saxony until 1765. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the Banquet of Cleopatra had entered the Russian imperial collections, and was for a time hung on a ceiling in the Mikhailovsky Castle in St Petersburg. Later the painting was transferred to the Hermitage Palace, remaining there until sold to the National Gallery of Victoria, by the Soviet authorities, in 1932.

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