Studio of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Banquet of Cleopatra and Antony, circa 1747–1750, oil on canvas, 32 x 51 in., North Carolina Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. W. Lunsford Long
By Alana Wolf
Whether you find yourself fascinated or repelled by the media’s coverage of displays of outrageous fortune by the rich and famous, one thing is for certain: it’s hard to look away. The impossible heights of excess that rivet our attention might be equal parts glitter and train wreck, but we find ourselves wanting to watch all the same. Perhaps that’s what makes The Banquet of Cleopatra and Antony such an unforgettable image.
This painting recalls a moment in the story of the ill-fated couple as told by Roman historian Pliny the Elder. The Egyptian queen boasted to Mark Antony that she was capable hosting a feast so lavish, its expense would surpass any the leader had ever witnessed. Antony took her wager and sat dubiously through a meal that was luxurious, to be sure—but no more so than other Roman extravaganzas he’d attended. Just as the banquet was coming to a close, Antony watched as Cleopatra removed a priceless pearl earring and dropped the gem into a goblet of vinegar, into which it instantly dissolved. This image depicts a triumphant queen who has just consumed what is arguably history’s most expensive cocktail.
Given the current economy, of course, we wouldn’t expect our political leaders to indulge in $1,000 omelets and $3,700 pizzas without coming under fire for extravagance. The Banquet is but one image of many in the North Carolina Museum of Art’s permanent collection that uses food to tell a larger story. This fall the Museum will offer a further opportunity to explore how artists have used exquisitely rendered foodstuffs and opulent objects to express ideas about society as Still Life Masterpieces: A Visual Feast from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, comes to the NCMA.
Want to dive in further? The NCMA is inviting college students to dream up a feast to rival Cleopatra’s. We’ll publish your work on this blog, and you’ll have a chance at taking a place at our table in the juried exhibition A Life, Still, which runs concurrently with Still Life Masterpieces from October 21, 2012, through January 13, 2013.