Cleopatra and the Dissolving Pearl Cocktail: Investigated through Art and Science

By Diane Weisbeck, Contributing Fashion Writer

The legend goes that Cleopatra made a wager with Marc Antony saying that she could spend more money than anyone ever had on a single lavish banquet. Marc Antony, being accustomed to rich and extravagant feasts, accepted the wager. Cleopatra, wishing to display her wealth and power, held a sumptuous and luxurious meal complete with exhilarating entertainments and exotic cuisine. At the conclusion of the banquet, Cleopatra removed an enormous pearl earring, worth many fortunes and placed it in a glass of wine vinegar. When the pearl was dissolved, she drank it. Thereby winning the wager and the heart of Marc Antony.

This intriguing ancient anecdote, while romantic, has always been thought of as an archaic legend, until recently.

Throughout the ages, artists from all cultures and centuries have depicted this story. Why is it so fascinating and why, after two millennia, does it still captivate us?


Within the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an exquisitely crafted tapestry created by Flemish artist Justus van Egmont which depicts the legendary scene as the artist envisioned it in the 17th century.

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Also found at the Metropolitan Museum, a delicate etching by Fragonard, from the 18th century.

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Lerouisse painted the scene in the 18th century. It can be viewed in the Peterhof Palace Museum, St. Petersburg.

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The Art Deco period created a revival of all things Egyptian and Cleopatra was all the vogue, as seen in the elegant bronze sculpture by French artist A. Leclerc, dated 1930.

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Our vision of Cleopatra may be of the iconic portrayal of the ultimate seductress by Claudette Colbert, as seen in the 1934 film, with Henry Wilcoxon as Marc Antony.

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Queen Cleopatra was the final ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. She reigned from 51-30 BCE. It was recorded that she was an intellectual, speaking nine languages fluently. She had access to the legendary library of Alexandria.  Cleopatra was regarded as a resourceful ruler and used everything at her disposal to retain her dominance over Egypt, including seducing the rulers of Rome.

The dissolving of her enormous pearl, “the largest in all of history” and worth 10 million sesterces, according to the ancient historian Pliny the Elder, may have been the ultimate seduction.

The concept of a woman seducing a man with her body is a common possibility. The idea of Queen Cleopatra seducing Marc Antony, a political enemy, by displaying the most extreme spectacle of wastefulness ever performed; what class of seduction is this, we wonder. Here is a theory not examined before. Decadent squandering as seen as seduction.

To test this hypothesis, Prudence Jones, classicist, of Montclair State University in New Jersey performed a number of experiments with vinegar and small pearls to discover whether the acetic acid of vinegar is strong enough to dissolve calcium carbonate, the material that forms a pearl. Experiments have shown that when both a pearl is crushed and the vinegar is boiled, the dissolving reaction may take less than 10 minutes. Ms. Jones concluded, based on her experimentation that it is completely possible that Cleopatra, with a broad understanding of chemistry, could have dissolved the pearl and any hesitation remaining on the part of Marc Antony.

Perhaps, by melting a magnitude of fortunes before his eyes, Cleopatra was expressing to Marc Antony his infinite worth to her. Or maybe she was just exposing her great wealth. (She had exposed everything else up to that point, why not her assets?) Riches, the world’s ultimate aphrodisiac.  We may never know the truth; but speculating about Cleopatra’s legendary pearl cocktail is certainly a pleasure!

 

Posted in Workmanship.

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