My Daily Art Display today features not one but two paintings. Both are by the same artist Guido Cagnacci and both have the same theme, namely, the death of Cleopatra.
Guido Cagnacci was an Italian painter of the late Baroque period belonging to the Bolognese School which rivalled Florence and Rome as centres of painting. He was born in 1601 in Santarcangelo di Romagna, a town in the province of Rimini where he spent the early part of his life. Later, he spent time in Rome where he met fellow artists Simon Vouet, Guernico and was a pupil of Guido Reni. It is also believed that during this time he may also have studied under an ageing Ludovicio Carracci. He moved back east to Venice in 1650 and started to paint very sensual scenes with seductive, half-naked girls as his subject. These erotic paintings were very popular and much sought after by collectors at the time and his popularity spread . In 1658 he journeyed to Vienna where he gained the patronage of Emperor Leopold I and that was his ticket to fame and riches. His later paintings featured semi-naked women as Lucretia, Cleopatra and even Mary Magdalene.
The painting above entitled The Death of Cleopatra was completed by him in 1660 and now hangs in the Brera Gallery in Milan. This painting is charged with sensuality and we see Cleopatra slumped in an upright chair, naked down to the waist. She has been bitten by the asp which we see trapped between the arm of the chair and her right arm. Her eyes are almost closed as she drifts towards unconciousness. Her head has fallen back against the red leather of the chair. The curls of her golden hair reach down to her shoulder. Even at the point of death she retains her beauty. Her facial expression is one of tranquility and not one contorted with pain. In her final moments she loses none of her radiance.
The second painting by Cagnacci which I am featuring entitled The Death of Cleopatra was painted two years before the first one I featured. It was completed around 1658 and now hangs in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.
In this painting we see Cleopatra, not alone, but with six of her handmaidens. Look at the contrast between Cleopatra and her handmaidens. See how Cagnacci has shown the realism of the weeping servants. The faces of some are contorted with anguish whilst others just dissolve into tears for the plight of their mistress. The handmaiden in the left foreground points towards the snake, said to be an asp, and like the woman next to her holds up her other hand to shield herself from any attack from the creature. But look at Cleopatra. Cagnacci has once again painted her half slumped in the chair this time with her head fallen to one side. Once again we see the small snake trapped between the arm of the chair and her arm. Maybe the squeezing of the snake’s body has caused it to strike. Again as was the case in the first painting, Cleopatra seems at peace with the world and once again there are no facial expressions which would lead us to believe that her death had been in any way painful.
It is that very last point about the peaceful look on Cleopatra’s face that brings me to an interesting point of view made by the German historian and author of a best-seller entitled Cleopatra, Christoph Schäfer, who has researched the death of Cleopatra caused by the snake. He has looked back at historical texts and one report, written about 200 years after Cleopatra’s death, stated that Cleopatra died a quiet and peaceful death, and this is exactly how Cagnacci has portrayed the victim in both his paintings, which does not correlate with death by asp bite – a long, painful and disfiguring way to go.
Schäfer’s other findings have also destroyed our long-held beliefs re the 2000 year-old legend of the Queens death, for he also highlights the fact that the story of Cleopatra, which we are used to, is highly unlikely. His examination of ancient texts in Alexandria revealed that Egyptians knew a lot about poisons, and one papyrus reported that Cleopatra tested these poisons on herself. He also states that Cleopatra died in the middle of an Egyptian summer, so temperatures would most likely have been too high for an asp to stay still enough to bite. Of course in our two paintings Cagnacci has shown the snake trapped under her arm and unable to wriggle free! Having discussed his thoughts with a toxicologist, Schäfer concluded that the most likely method of death was a drug combination of opium, wolfsbane and hemlock, which was known at that time to induce a painless death.
I will end here and let you decide how Cleopatra died, but do not let the different theories detract from these two beautiful paintings