Cleopatra VII, the last
pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, is history’s most famous queen – and the most
alluring. Even more than 2,000 years after her death, her persona
continues to inspire books, plays, movies and museum shows – including
the new Cleopatra: Rome and the Magic of Egypt.
The exhibition, which runs until 2 February at Rome’s Chiostro del Bramante,
brings 180 pieces from around the world to evoke Cleopatra’s turbulent,
fascinating era. The works, which include sculptures and bracelets,
frescoes and funerary urns, hail from collections as esteemed as the Louvre in Paris, Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, and British Museum in London.
this is not an exhibition that delves into how Cleopatra has been
imagined (and romanticised and vilified) in the modern period. The show
seeks, instead, to contextualise her reign within her own, ancient era.
And that’s what makes it unique.
Viewers learn how Romans
fantasised about Egypt’s verdant lands. A mosaic from the 1st Century BC
stretches almost the length of the space, showing a Nile River scene of
fish, ducks, crocodiles and boats, all exquisitely elaborated in tiny
glass tesserae; while a marble sculpture from the same period depicts an
acrobat doing a handstand on a crocodile’s back.
explores how Cleopatra’s stay in Rome, from 46 to 44BC, sparked
Egyptomania in the capital, showing artefacts such as a fresco of
sphinxes from a Pompeiian villa and a gold bracelet in the shape of
Cleopatra’s icon, the serpent.
The show seems to have been curated
on the assumption that most people already know the broad outlines of
her life: how she seduced Caesar and convinced him to back her claim to
the throne; or how she later charmed Roman triumvir Mark Anthony and was
defeated alongside him in the fateful Battle of Actium of 31BC. After
all, those details have been shared often enough, starting not with
Elizabeth Taylor (1963), Shakespeare (1623) or even Plutarch (1st
Instead, the exhibit shows viewers the kind of
objects she herself would have seen and the art that she herself
inspired. That might not be as dramatic as the image of Cleopatra
clasping an asp to her breast. But for those curious about her life and
times, it is every bit as fascinating.