Who was the real Cleopatra?
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.
However, 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.
Another section 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 Century AD).
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.
Amanda Ruggeri is the Rome Localite for BBC Travel. She also writes revealedrome.com.