Chap. XII.

Of the Picture describing the death of Cleopatra.

THE Picture concerning the death of Cleopatra with two Asps or venemous Serpents unto her arms, or breasts, or both, requires consideration:[1] for therein (beside that this variety is not excusable) the thing it self is questionable; nor is it indisputably certain what manner of death she died. Plutarch in the life of Antony plainly delivereth, that no man knew the manner of her death; for some affirmed she perished by poison, which she alwayes carried in a little hollow comb, and wore it in her hair. Beside, there were never any Asps discovered in the place of her death, although two of her Maids perished also with her; only it was said, two small and almost insensible pricks were found upon her arm; which was all the ground that Cæsar had to presume the manner of her death. Galen who was contemporary unto Plutarch, delivereth two wayes of her death: that she killed her self by the bite of an Asp, or bit an hole in her arm, and poured poison therein. Strabo that lived before them both hath also two opinions; that she died by the bite of an Asp, or else a poisonous ointment.[2]

We might question the length of the Asps, which are sometimes described exceeding short; whereas the Chersæa or land-Asp which most conceive she used, is above four cubits long. Their number is not unquestionable; for whereas there are generally two described, Augustus (as Plutarch relateth) did carry in his triumph the Image of Cleopatra but with one Asp unto her arm. As for the two pricks, or little spots in her arm, they infer not their plurality: for like the Viper, the Asp hath two teeth; whereby it left this impression, or double puncture behind it.

And lastly, We might question the place; for some apply them unto her breast, which notwithstanding will not consist with the History; and Petrus Victorius hath well observed the same. But herein the mistake was easie; it being the custom in capital malefactors to apply them unto the breast, as the Author[3] of De Theriaca ad Pisonum, an eye witness hereof in Alexandria, where Cleopatra died, determineth: I beheld, saith he, in Alexandria, how suddenly these Serpents bereave a man of life; for when any one is condemned to this kind of death, if they intend to use him favourably, that is, to dispatch him suddenly, they fasten an Asp unto his breast; and bidding him walk about, he presently perisheth thereby.


My notes (and other people's) are in square brackets [ ]; addenda from manuscripts are in curly braces { }; Browne's own marginalia are unmarked. Ross answers this chapter in Arcana Microcosmi II.11. (Don't expect much: it's Ross, after all.)

1 [Wilkin:

"An ancient encaustic picture of Cleopatra has lately been discovered, and detached from a wall, in which it had been hidden for centuries, and supposed to be a real portrait, painted by a Greek artist. It is done on blue slate. The colouring is fresh, very like life. She is represented applying the aspic to her bosom." Extract from a Letter from Paris; Phil. Gaz. Nov. 27, 1822 — Jeff.

The preceding notice refers in all probability to the painting which was afterwards brought over to England by its possessor, Signor Micheli, who valued it at £10,000. He caused an engraving of it to be executed, which I have had an opportunity of seeing, in the hands of R. R. Reinagle, Esq., R. A. [Reinagle, though indeed an R.A. until he resigned in 1848, was also a forger and this should of course be kept in mind--JE] by whose kindness I have also been favoured with the following very full and interesting history and description of this curious work of art, in compliance with my request:

"17, Fitzroy Square, Dec. 2, 1834.

"Sir, — The painting was done on a species of black slaty marble — was broken in two or three places. It was said by the Chev. Micheli, the proprietor, who brought it from Florence to this country, that it had been found in the recesses of a great wine cellar, where other fragments of antiquity had been deposited. That it was in a very thick case of wood nearly mouldered away. That it got into a broker's hands, by the major domo of the house or palace where it was discovered, having sold a parcel of insignificant lumber, so called, in which this painting was found. It was generally incrusted with a sort of tartar and decomposed varnish, which was cleared off by certain eminent chemists of Florence. Parts of the colouring were scraped off and analysed by three or four persons. Formal attestations were made by them before the constituted authorities, and the documents had the stamps of authorized bodies and signatures. The colours were found to be all mineral, and few in number. The red was the synopia of Greece; another laky red, put over the red mantle Cleopatra wore, was of a nature not discovered;- It had the look of Venetian glazed red lake, of the crimson colour; — the white was a calx, but I forget of what nature; — the yellow was of the nature of Naples yellow — it seemed a vitrification; — there was also yellow ochre; — the black was charcoal. The green curtain was termed terra vera of Greece, passed over with some unknown enriching yellow colour. The hair was deep auburn colour, and might be mangenese; — the curls, elaborately made out, were finished hair by hair, with vivid curved lines on the lighted parts, of the bright yellow golden colour. The necklace consisted of various stones set in gold: the amulet was of gold, and a chain twice or thrice round her right wrist. She wore a crown with radiating points, and jewels between each; — also a forehead jewel, with a large pearl at the four corners, worn lozenge-ways on her forehead; part of her front hair was plaited, and two plaits were brought round the neck, and tied in a knot of the hair; — the red mantle was fastened on both shoulders — no linen was seen. She held the asp in her left hand; it was of a green colour, and rather large. Its head was fanciful, and partook of the whims of sculptors both ancient and modern, resembling the knobhead and pouting mouth of the dolphin. While writhing, it seems as if preparing to give a second bite; two minute indents of the fangs were imprinted on the inside of the left breast, and a drop or two of blood flowed. Cleopatra was looking upwards; a shuddering expression from quivering lips, and heavy tears falling down her cheeks, gave the countenance a singular effect; her right hand was falling from the wrist as if life were departing and convulsions commencing. The composition of the figure was erect and judiciously disposed for the confined space it was placed in. The proportion of the picture was about two feet nine inches, and narrow, like that sized canvass which artists in England call a kitcat. On decomposing the colours, the learned men of Florence and Paris were fully persuaded that it was an encaustic painting; wax and a resinous gum were distinctly separated. The whole picture presented the strongest signs of antiquity; but whether it is a real antique, remains still a doubt in many minds. It was attributed to Timomachus, an artist of great eminence and a traveller, who lived at the court of Augustus Cæsar. He followed the encaustic style of Apelles, and with him died or faded away that difficult art. The picture was painted (as is surmised) by the above-named Greek artist, from memory (for he had seen Cleopatra often,) to supply her place in the triumph of Augustus, when he celebrated his Egyptian victories over Anthony and Cleopatra. She, by her desperate resolution, deprived him of the honour of exposing her person to the gaze of the Roman people. The picture was said to have been taken, as a precious relic of art, by Constantine to Byzantium, afterwards named Constantinople, and restored to Rome on the return of his successors to the ancient seat of government. Among the very many things in and relating to art, this picture was overlooked, and remained in the deep dark recesses of the wine cellar. The Chevalier Micheli carried it back to Italy, when he left England, about two years ago. What has become of it since I know not.

"The title of the print is as follows: — 'Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. The original of which this present plate is a faithful representation, is the only known and hitherto discovered specimen of ancient Greek painting. It has given rise to the most learned enquiries both in Italy and France, and been universally admitted by cognoscenti, assisted by actual analysis of the colours, to be an encaustic painting. The picture is attributed to Timomachus, and supposed to have been painted by him for his friend and patron, August Cæsar, 33 years before Christ, to adorn the triumph that celebrated his Egyptian victories over Anthony and Cleopatra, as a substitute for the beautiful original, of whom he was disappointed by the heroic death she inflicted on herself. This plate is dedicated to the virtuosi and lovers of refined art in the British empire by the author, who is also the possessor of this inestimable relic of Grecian art.'

"I remain your very obedient servant,

"R. R. Reinagle."

In Notes & Queries (2nd S., Vol. 6 (139), p. 166, August 28, 1858), "β" requests information on the location of this painting: "About five-and-twenty years ago, one Signor Micheli brought over to this country a very ancient encaustic picture of Queen Cleopatra, which was supposed to be a genuine portrait, painted by a Greek artist, and which the owner valued at 10,000l. He caused an engraving of it to be executed. Is the painting still in existence, or where may the print of it be seen?" He goes on to quote the title as above. The query was, so far as I can determined, never answered (or not answered in Notes & Queries, in any case). There was a picture-framing and -restoration establishment in Birmingham (or Manchester? my mind wanders in these latter years) some years ago under the ownership of a Mr. Micheli; one wonders if this is a descendant of the original, and whether he could provide information on the subject. John Sartain saw a very similar, or perhaps the same, painting in the 1880's; he made an engraving of it and put together a small book containing some materials on it and on encaustic painting; see On the Antique Painting in encaustic of Cleopatra. (Note how closely the jewelry in the engraving corresponds with the description of Reinagle; in all probability this is the same or a clone or copy.) I have been unable to trace the painting further. Could it be in the museum at Cortona, along with other fake ancient encaust paintings?

The major ancient sources of this possible modern pseudodox are Pliny, Plutarch and Appian. As Browne points out, it is Plutarch (Ant. LXXXVI) who gives both the story of the asp (or the comb) and the story of the picture carried in triumph. He gives no details about the portrait. Since Octavian ("Cæsar"), according to Plutarch, actually saw the minute marks that may have been bites, and saw that they were in Cleopatra's arm, only dramatic considerations warrant a portrait showing her with an asp (or asps) at her breast (or breasts).

Appian (Civil Wars II.102) says that Cæsar (Julius) caused a "beautiful image of Cleopatra" to be placed next to the image of the goddess in the temple of Venus Genetrix in the forum of Rome, which portrait he remarks was still there in his day (2nd century AD). Cass. Dio says this image was of gold. Pliny (XXXV.136 & 145), on the other hand, makes no mention of any such portrait. He does say that Cæsar bought (at great price) two masterful paintings by Timomachus, a Medea and an Ajax, which he had placed on either side of the goddess in the temple of Venus Genetrix. (The Loeb edition states baldly that copies of the Medea are still in existence, end of note. While this is hardly helpful, there it is, for what it's worth.) The Medea he lists (in XXXV.145) among paintings whose great beauty is in part a result of their unfinished state. It seems most unlikely that anyone could possibly mistake even an unfinished picture of Medea for a portrait of Cleopatra, but that is one possible solution. See also Platner & Ashby on the temple of Venus Genetrix.

Finally, one modern and very secondary source asserts that there was a portrait of Cleopatra by Timomachus and that copies are known. As there are no references whatsoever in this source, its accuracy is hard to gauge, but doubt seems very much in order.]

2 [Strabo XVII.1.]

3[The work is attributed by a modern editor to Galen; the editor adds "si dubitò dell'autenticità di questa 'ad Pisonem' ". Earlier editions reverse the position. (De theriaca ad Pisonem. Testo latino [nella interpretazione di Giulio Marziano Rota] traduzione italiana ed introduzione a cura del dott. Enrico Coturri. Presentazione del prof. M.G. Nardi. Florence, L.S. Olschki, 1959. Biblioteca della "Rivista di storia delle scienze mediche e naturali" v. 8)].

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