Fabulous feast

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Tiepolo's rapid painting technique conveys opulence and light as two of history's most famous lovers meet for a meal. Ghislaine Kenyon takes a look at Cleopatra's banquet

Looking at this banquet scene with its grandiose classical setting teeming with figures and animals, you feel it must be an enormous work. In fact this is a reproduction of something not much bigger than this page. It's an oil sketch painted by Tiepolo in the 1740s, probably for approval by his patrons, the Labia family. It shows a moment in the turbulent love-life of Antony and Cleopatra, best known to us today via Shakespeare's play of the same name (though for Shakespeare and Tiepolo the sources would have been the ancient writers Plutarch and Pliny).

The historical Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt, lived from 68-30 bc.

According to legend she was both beautiful and clever, with a taste for lavish entertaining - demonstrated in the subject of this picture.

Cleopatra is shown on the right, about to dissolve one of her famous pearls in a cup of wine, held out by the black servant in green. In doing this she displays to the Roman statesman and war leader, Antony, contempt for her own extraordinary wealth. Cleopatra's status is suggested by the grand architecture, numerous servants and her position at the top of the formal staircase. Antony, left, in red with a Roman helmet, recoils in surprise at her extravagant gesture.

Tiepolo manages to balance the high drama at the top of the steps with the mundane activities taking place around it: the comings and goings of tray-bearing servants, Antony's groom holding his horse in check and a wonderful little cameo of a court dwarf crawling up the steps with a plate of food for the yapping black and white dog just below Cleopatra. Notice also the luscious way in which Tiepolo suggests the freshly ironed, freshly unfolded linen tablecloth right in the centre of the picture - almost, but not quite, distracting us from the theatrical pearl-dropping moment.

This banquet is one of the Antony and Cleopatra scenes frescoed by Tiepolo for the Labia family as the decoration for the ballroom in their palace, the Palazzo Labia, which still survives in its prime position on the junction of the Canareggio and Grand Canals in Venice. (It's now the headquarters of RAI, the Italian national broadcasting organisation, but can be visited by appointment.) A fresco is a type of wall painting, so-called because the word means "fresh" in Italian. This refers to the wet plaster which is spread on a wall onto which paint can be applied.

Decorating the walls and ceilings of rooms with frescoes wasn't an 18th-century innovation. Tiepolo and his Renaissance predecessors were actually looking back at the work of their ancient Roman ancestors, who had used the technique in similar ways to cover the walls of townhouses and country villas. You can see examples in situ in Pompeii, or in the Museo Nazionale Romano delle Terme, Rome.

This sketch was one of the preparatory works which Tiepolo may have shown the Labia family before executing the fresco itself. The subject of the commission seems to have been particularly well-chosen: the Labias, of Spanish origin, had recently bought their way into the Venetian aristocracy and were keen to impress Venetian society with their generous entertainment budgets. And there was no better way to show the world that they had taste as well as money, than to have the ultimate domestic display-ground, the ballroom, decorated by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Tiepolo was at the height of his powers in 1740, and a superbly gifted draughtsman, as the fluid lines of figures and drapery in this sketch suggest. He had learned from his contemporaries Piazzetta and Ricci, but his great debt is to his Venetian 16th-century predecessors, Titian, Tintoretto and especially Paolo Veronese. The architectural settings, the sculptural quality of his figures, the costumes he dresses them in, all recall works such as Veronese's "Family of Darius before Alexander" in the National Gallery.

Oil sketches often worked as an intermediate stage between an initial drawing and its full-scale execution in paint, but for Tiepolo they were sometimes the starting point for the process. He excelled in such rapid painting which, more than anything, conveys a sense of movement, light and air.



For the story of Cleopatra as told in art see Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, edited by James Hall, John Murray pound;18.99 Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (any edition)


For information on this painting and others by Tiepolo and his Renaissance predecessors, especially Veronese, see the National Gallery website www.nationalgallery.org.uk

To see frescoes from the Palazzo Labia try the Web Gallery of Art www.wga.hu and search under "Palazzi Labia"

For Roman wall painting see www.metmuseum.orgtoahhdropthd_ropt.htm

* This painting is normally at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, but is currently on show in the exhibition All Spirit and Fire, Oil Sketches by Tiepolo, at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN until May 29. Open daily 10-6. Admission free for students under 18, and on Mondays until 2pm. Otherwise pound;5, concessions Pounds 4.

For a free tour of the exhibition for school groups phone Learning at Somerset House, Tel: 020 7420 9406 or Email: education@somerset-house.org.uk

Ghislaine Kenyon is head of learning at Somerset House

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo 1696-1770

Born in Venice on March 5, 1696, Tiepolo worked for patrons in northern Italy. His most celebrated commission was the decoration of the Prince-Bishop's residence in Wuerzburg. He is famed for the brilliance of his colours, the speed and spontaneity of his execution, and the airy freedom of his frescoes filled with figures floating on clouds. He moved to Spain in 1762 with his sons (also artists) to work for the Spanish monarchy.

Lesson ideas



In connection with work on still life or food, look at other banquet pictures such as "Belshazzar's Feast" by Rembrandt, or Veronese's "Marriage Feast at Cana" (search www.artcyclopedia.com with the word "banquet" or "feast" in the title field for many more) and paint or collage a large banquet image with the subject of a wedding or some other special occasion.

Focus on special food, table arrangement etc.


Use this picture to support sketchbook practice working towards a finished narrative picture. Emphasise that ideas can be developed through several sketches using different media (for the Labia commission, Tiepolo also made chalk drawings of details such as the figure of Cleopatra). The final work may differ considerably from the sketches, as in the case with this picture which ended up in vertical instead of horizontal format, with fewer figures.



Ask students to tell or write the story of the "Banquet of Cleopatra"

using the picture as a starting point. Tell the story from the point of view of both Antony and Cleopatra.

Drama English


Love story: tell students the story of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, and read Act III scene xi, for the lovers' feelings for each other. This image is about courtship, about how people try to impress each other. Look at it and then ask students to write their own scene on the same theme.

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