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Museums: Face Time with Cleopatra Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Mark Rose

[image] Basalt statue of Cleopatra VII, St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum 3936 [LARGER IMAGE]

As far as they say, her beauty was not in and for itself incomparable, nor such to strike the person who was just looking at her; but her conversation had an irresistible charm; and from the one side her appearance, together with the seduction of her speech, from the other her character, which pervaded her actions in an inexplicable way when meeting people, was utterly spellbinding.

Now at Chicago's Field Museum through March 3, 2002, Cleopatra: From History to Myth proves that two millennia after Plutarch described her, Cleopatra remains spellbinding. The outline of her meteoric life is well-known: Only 17 years old when she succeeded her father in 51 B.C., Cleopatra was soon ousted by her brother. But she so charmed Caesar that he helped her regain the throne, and in 46 B.C. she followed him to Rome, where people were fascinated with her, yet suspicious of her foreign ways. Fashionable women imitated her hairstyle; the poet Propertius labeled her the "harlot queen." Caesar was preparing to legitimize their relationship and their son, Caesarion, and to establish Alexandria as a second capital when he was assassinated in 44 B.C. In the aftermath of his death, the Roman world was divided between Octavian and Antony, an uneasy state that soon broke down into civil war. Cleopatra, allied with Antony, bore him two sons and a daughter before their disastrous defeat at Actium led to her suicide on August 17, 30 B.C.

But what of her? Against pejorative accounts fostered by Octavian for their propaganda value, one can set the judgments of Caesar and Antony. In the absence of any written testimony from them, their bonds with Cleopatra--far beyond simple dalliances or political expediencies--attest their acceptance of her as an equal partner. Clearly she was an extraordinary person. Cleopatra: From History to Myth places the Egyptian queen in her historical and cultural context and shows how she has been perceived over the centuries. Ancient sculptures, mosaics, and other artifacts, including a papyrus scrap that may bear her handwriting, show her dynastic forebears and document life in her Alexandria, a city second only to Rome. Portraits show the faces of Caesar, Antony, Octavian, and, possibly, Caesarion. This was her world and the faces, though carved in cold stone, are of the people she knew. By comparison, a 1740s oil sketch by Giovanni Tiepolo and a fan painted by Jean Louis Viger in 1870, both of Antony and Cleopatra banqueting, are exquisite, lively and colorful, but not compelling. Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh, and Elizabeth Taylor's cinematic portrayals of Cleopatra, also included in the exhibition, seem all glamour and costume. Cleopatra may be the subject of these artworks and Hollywood productions, but they reflect their own times, not her.

French author André Malraux called Cleopatra "a queen without a face." That was true for a long time, for portraits of her were few--some on coins, and a handful of sculptures, not all accepted as representing the queen or as being ancient works. Cleopatra: From History to Myth brings many of those together along with some of a group of six newly recognized representations of Cleopatra. This group, five statues and a glass intaglio from a ring, show her wearing a triple uraeus--three rearing cobras, perhaps representing Upper and Lower Egypt and her Asian and Cypriot foreign possessions.

Providing a face for Cleopatra is the exhibition's real strength. That, and the context for her life conveyed by the ancient flotsam and jetsam on display, bring us a bit closer to her, though we will never hear her captivating speech or see her actions, however spellbinding they were.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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