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Major exhibition at Pinacothèque de Paris explores the myth of Cleopatra
People look at the head of a statue depicting Julius Caesar (100bc- 44bc) as they visit the the exhibition entitled "the myth of Cleopatra" on April 9, 2014 at the Pinacotheque in Paris. AFP PHOTO ERIC FEFERBERG.

By: Marc Restelini

PARIS.- An outsize historical character, Cleopatra is without a doubt one of the most famed historical personalities in History’s pantheon, alongside Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon or De Gaulle. But what do we actually know about her? On the purely archaeological level, many pieces have been destroyed. On the historical level, the accounts and opinions are still widely debated.

All that is left of her is the notion of an outstanding beauty, of fantastical love affairs with the two most powerful men in the world at that time, an image that was created during her lifetime and that took on an unimaginable scale as soon as she vanished, to be transformed into an ancestral myth, which never ceased to be taken up in all its forms and in all periods.

Never has an historical character been so controversial, from Dante and Boccaccio who described her as a “whore” up to the current historians who see in her one of the first political geniuses in the history of humankind, working solely for her country’s independence and autonomy. Cleopatra is still to-day the most famous and the most mysterious character of all times in History She has been depicted in every role: from the whore to the frail woman, from the black and devious character to the victim of the Roman generals, from the cunning one who seduced the great Caesar to the fatal beauty whom the powerful Mark Anthony was unable to resist.

No Queen throughout time has remained more famous in the world than Cleopatra even though we still do not know exactly what she looked like. She was shown as Egyptian, obviously, but also as Nubian or African and black, never as the Greek she was in fact. Imagined as irresistible, she is even shown as having been the most beautiful women in the world whose nose remains famous thanks to Pascal’s phrase: “Had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the face of the earth would have been changed.” Thanks to this absolute phantasm - taken up by Getafix, the famous druid in Asterix and Obelix, who is lovingly enraptured by the Egyptian queen’s nose – Pascal contributed to the continuation of that myth in the modern and contemporary world, since literature, poetry, painting, theatre, comic strips and the cinema have all embodied her, each time differently, never with the same qualities or the same faults. Always exaggerated, in any case, and never close to a historical reality.

So, who was Cleopatra in fact, and how did this myth come about? How could that young Greek queen, 18 years old – descendant of Ptolemy the First, son of Lagos, general of Alexander the Great, who was endowed with Egypt at the Emperor’s death and who became Pharaoh in order to emphasize his power and to govern that province – have been to such an extent the focus of attention during her lifetime and how, after her death, did she become one of the most enduring myths in the history of mankind? How could she, throughout the centuries, become so consistently the most representative image of an Egypt that has in fact absolutely nothing to do with what was the Ancient Egypt of the Pharaohs, Memphis or Tutankhamen.

That is the subject that the Pinacothèque de Paris is exhibiting today thanks to this unique and important exhibition, with over 350 pieces displayed. From archaeology, which shows a historical reality and attempts to define the genuine Cleopatra, to painting, the theatre, the decorative arts, the Opera and the cinema. From the genuine Cleopatra to all her most famous incarnations, from Sarah Bernhardt to Liz Taylor and Monica Bellucci, we will attempt to tell you who that young queen was and how that woman’s myth took hold of her own life, so as to turn it into an authentic living legend, which none of us, old or young, wherever we are on this earth, can ignore. We all live with Cleopatra. From the soap we use every day, stamped with her profile, or the glue used by our children that bears her effigy up to the merest fancy dress party where Cleopatra’s clothes and her famous headdress are seen and are often the most noticed.

Why does everything related to Cleopatra have to do with legend? Why does everything connected with her during her lifetime or in her posterity become a legend? From the supposed romance she entertained with Caesar then with Mark Anthony - of which we still today don’t know whether they were genuine love stories, or the political acts of a brilliant strategist who foresaw with a unique political acumen her country’s destiny - who became all by herself, through her own death, one of the most classical images of her character. How to even explain the romance that made headlines between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton during the making of the film carried out by Mankiewicz, based on Shakespeare’s play, where the couple embodied in the modern era the notion that the public had of Cleopatra’s genuine life? Finally, how to explain the worldwide triumph of the comic strip made by Uderzo and Goscinny of Astérix et Cleopatra or more recently the movie Mission Cleopatra? Why have the images of Cleopatra in her milk bath stayed in the collective imagination like those of her death through the poisonous snakes, which are still among the most frequent and most tragic representations of her life.

The Pinacothèque de Paris has attempted to broach all these questions, to answer them or at least to illustrate them, so as to retrace by means of an outstanding exhibition the legend of this most unusual character.

If the exhibition was made possible, it is first of all due to the complicity with our Italian partner Arthémisia and with Mrs Iole Siena and her team that enabled its first presentation in Rome. It is also due to the outstanding work carried out by the exhibition’s curator, Giovanni Gentili that this show has managed to take on this depth and this importance in the Pinacothèque de Paris. It also due to the presence of the foremost specialists of each of the experts fascinated by Cleopatra’s myth, that this exhibition is so all-encompassing.

Today's News

April 11, 2014

Major exhibition at Pinacothèque de Paris explores the myth of Cleopatra

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