Paintings | 16th Century | Luca Giordano | The discovery of Cleopatra's body | Expertise

161,5 x 131,5 cm
Oil on canvas
1660 ca.


Artwork profile

The discovery of Cleopatra's body

Luca Giordano

The Expertise

The picture here at expertise “The Discovery of the body of Cleopatra” (oil on canvas, 161.5 x 131.5 cm) is a major work of Luca Giordano (1634-1705), the great Neapolitan artist. Giordano was one of the most prolific painters of the history, who produced over 3000 paintings in the course of his entire life. He could be considered a 17th century Picasso and, for his ease with the brush, he was called “work-fast”. In the 17th century, with such epithet was labelled the Baroque stream of large scale decorations, that is artists capable of working rapidly and of painting many figures, as opposed to slow painters, such as Domenichino, Sacchi or Poussin, who were instead identified with the Classical stream. Another trait in common with Picasso is the frequent change in style which allowed him to boast his virtuosity; he was even able of simulating the style of other artists like Albrecht Dürer. The present work is actually painted according to the Venetian pictorial canons, assimilated after a journey to Venice in the late 1650s, when he was still a young artist in his early twenties. Giordano started working many years before as an apprentice to the great Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, who had dominated the Neapolitan scene during his youth. Ribera’s brush work was very dry, his depiction of the flesh was ascetic and his colours were sombre. Venetian art was instead exactly the opposite: a rich mixture of colour, the flesh was portrayed with sensuality and the surface had bright highlights and vibrant colours. The master of such style who considerably influenced Giordano was Paolo Veronese. The present work possesses all these characteristics: the main figure, the dead Cleopatra, is found by her maids who try to lift her and bring her back to life. The light falls on her naked breast and on her face; here the flesh is treated in a sensual manner rather than in a corpse-like one, and its warmth and beauty are in contrast with the dreadful fate of the Queen. Our understanding of the picture is ultimately linked with such strong plays of light. The maid seated on her left is heightened in high relief by the light falling on her back and leaving the rest of the body in the shade. Her hair is knotted over her head as in Veronese’s works. The head of the maid behind the latter is a magnificent head, typical of Giordano, with fleshy cheeks; again we find the play of highlights and shades, while behind Cleopatra a third maid emerges from darkness into the light. These three women define the space around the dead queen helping to draw the attention over her body. Last there is Caesar, the conqueror, who enters from the right and finds the Queen, the last of the Tolomeic Dynasty, already dead. His gesture magnificently expresses the emotions of choc and dismay that he feels as he personally finds out of her death, and Giordano manages to convey such expression through the widened fingers and the tension of the forearm’s muscle. Last on the background, closing the circle of figures surrounding Cleopatra, we find the old bearded man completely overwhelmed by the horrifying scene. By such means the painter evokes the horror of the event in a clear and comprehensible manner, also through the use of light and contrast which is aimed at creating an emotional effect on the surface of the work. At the centre of the drama there is the contrast between the slack pose of Cleopatra and the contracted one of Caesar: she becomes a creature of beauty and emotions. In her death she expresses contempt for riches: from her hands carelessly slip her jewels as if they were dices she had thrown in a game in which she had lost. The game is fatal because she had risked it all for love, losing it all. Caesar, as a man of power and ambition, considers Cleopatra a trophy that might lead him to a legitimate claim of the Tolomeic Reign, yet before the beauty of her death, all his countenance falls and he appears deeply moved by such an event. This is how a great artist tells a great story, and this is the most important feature of the work. Giordano is a great “story teller”, he conveys the narrative of the events that reveal the truth and that is the base of our lives and of our destiny. He uses the Venetian style, learned at the time of a short journey in the lagoon, to enhance his narrative skills and in particular the use of light and shade to create a dramatic response to an all the same dramatic event. It is the vigour and the strength with which he depicts the story that make this work astonishing. (Rome, 4th June 1996 - Stephen Pepper)