Listening to Art, by William Denton.
Volume ten, number three: Cleopatra Before Octavianus by Guercino.
Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.
The encounter depicted in this painting took place in August of 30 BCE in Alexandria, shortly after Mark Antony had committed suicide. I quote from Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony, as translated by Robin Waterfield in Roman Lives (pp. 426–427). “Caesar” here is Octavian, who, to put it simply, would soon become Augustus, the first Roman emperor.
A few days later Caesar made a personal visit to talk to her and put her mind at ease. She was lying dejectedly on a straw mattress, but as soon as he came in she leapt up, despite wearing only a tunic, and prostrated herself on the ground before him. Her hair and face were unkempt and wild, her voice trembled, and her eyes were puffy and swollen; there was even plenty of visible evidence of the way she had lacerated her breast. In short, her body seemed to be in just as bad a state as her mind. Nevertheless, her famous charisma and the power of her beauty had not been completely extinguished, but shone through her wretchedness from somewhere inside and showed in the play of her features. Caesar told her to recline on her mattress, while he sat down beside her. She began to try to justify her actions, blaming them on necessity and saying that she was afraid of Antony, but Caesar raised objections and disproved every point, so soon she adopted the pitiful, pleading tone of a woman who wanted nothing more than to go on living. In the end, however, she gave him an inventory she had taken of all her valuable possessions—but one of her stewards, a man called Seleucus, proved that she was making away with some of her things and hiding them. At this, she leapt to her feet, grabbed Seleucus by the hair, and pummelled his face with her fists, until Caesar stopped her with a smile. “But Caesar,” she said, “it just isn’t right, is it? You don’t mind coming to talk to me even when I’m in such a terrible state, and yet my slaves denounce me for keeping aside a little of my jewellery. And I’m not even doing it for myself, of course—I’m too wretched for that. It’s so that I can give a few things to Octavia and your Livia, and ask them to make you more compassionate and kind towards me.” Caesar liked this speech of hers and was completely convinced that life was still dear to her. Before going away, he told her that he left it up to her to look after her valuables and that he would treat her more gloriously than she could ever have expected. He was sure he had taken her in, when actually it was she who had taken him in.
This is a painting, oil on canvas, 280 cm wide by 250 cm high.
Now let’s listen to Cleopatra Before Octavianus by Guercino, recorded at the Capitoline Museums, in Rome, on 29 May 2018.
That was Cleopatra Before Octavianus by Guercino. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.
For more information and links to things I’ve mentioned, please visit listeningtoart.org.
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All web sites accessed as of date of publication.
Plutarch. Roman Lives: A Selection of Eight Roman Lives. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Wikipedia, s.v. “Guercino,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guercino.