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Reni, Guido
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Reni, Guido

Calvezzano, Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, 1575 - Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, 1642

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Ca. 1640. Oil on canvas. Room 005

Cleopatra VII (r. 51-30 BCE) was the sovereign of Egypt and the last representative of its final royal family, the Ptolemaic dynasty. Feeling that all was lost after her armies and those of her Roman lover and consort, Mark Antony (83-30 BCE), were successively defeated and the latter was killed, she chose to end her own life to avoid being captured by their mutual enemy, Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus (r. 27 BCE-14CE), whose victorious armies had surrounded Egypt´s capital city of Alexandria. In order to suffer as little as possible -the scandalous chronicle of her reign, halfway between truth and legend, alleges that she first tested various poisons on others Cleopatra called for a basket of fruit in which a poisonous snake was to be hidden. This tiny asp -probably a cobra, whose Greek name is aspic- transmitted a lethal poison through its bite. Here, Guido Reni depicts the crucial moment when the asp´s bite brings an end to Cleopatra´s life. Dressed in a white tunic with green edging, the hapless queen reclines amid red robes with her left hand on the basket of fruit and flowers. In her right hand, she clasps the serpent that approaches her bare bosom. The composition is typically Baroque; its contrasting light and shadows, acute theatricality, and play of diagonals emphasize the subject´s head as she leans back, looking upward in a pose rooted in the innovations of Mannerism but fully developed in the seventeenth century. This dramatic presentation of suffering or mourning exemplifies Reni´s manner of expressing death in a dignified and restrained manner -in keeping with the protagonist´s high status. The light colors indicate that the painting is one of Reni´s late works, with a chromatic economy that ranges from whites to greens. In his 1678 treatise on painting from the School of Bologna (of which Reni was a member), Carlo Cesare Malvasia (1616-1693) observed that for the Lucreces, Cleopatras and others, he used the Countesses Bianchi and Barbacci as his models. This statement indicates that Reni made different versions of these subjects, at least of those historical figures, and that he worked directly from life models -likely people that he knew. Reni´s skillful use of light and his choice of a dark, contrasting background draw the viewer´s attention to the figure´s powerful volume and exposed torso. This handling reveals his knowledge of the chiaroscuro techniques pioneered by Caravaggio (1571-1610) and his followers, which included Reni himself at the beginning of his career. This painting does not appear in the Spanish Royal Collections´ inventories until 1814, which suggests that it was acquired by Charles IV (r. 1788-1808), rather than by one of Spain´s previous Bourbon or Habsburg monarchs. Yet, Charles had wanted nude paintings in the collection incinerated in 1792, making his possible acquisition of this work intriguing. Like his predecessors, Charles may have been motivated by various factors in his collecting of nudes, and the historical subject matter of this picture may have exempted it from inclusion in the fire. Nevertheless, there is no earlier historical data about this work, nor any indication as to where it may have hung prior to the eighteenth century (Text drawn from Luna, J. J.: Splendor, Myth, and Vision. Nudes from the Prado, 2016, pp. 152-155).


Technical data

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Inventory number
Reni, Guido
Ca. 1640
Height: 110 cm.; Width: 94 cm.
Royal Collection (New Royal Palace, Madrid, First Room of the Library by the Terrace ("primera pieza de librería por parte de la terraza"), 1814-1818).

Bibliography +

Pérez Sánchez, Alfonso E., Pintura italiana del S. XVII en España, Universidad Fundación Valdecilla, Madrid, 1965, pp. 172.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Museo del Prado. Inventario general de pinturas (I) La Colección Real, Museo del Prado, Espasa Calpe, Madrid, 1990, pp. nº636.

Buendía, José Rogelio, El Prado. Colecciones de Pintura, Lunwerg Editores, Barcelona, 1994, pp. 304.

De Tiziano a Goya. Obras maestras del Museo del Prado., Tokio - Osaka, 2006.

De Tiziano a Goya: grandes maestros del Museo del Prado, Museo Nacional del Prado: SEACEX, Madrid, 2007, pp. 245-246.

Valtierra Lacalle, Ana, Iconografía de Lucrecia.Repercusiones plásticas en la península Ibérica, ANAS, 27-28, Mérida, 2014/2015, pp. 241-261 [253-254].

Luna, J.J, 'Guido Reni. Cleopatra'' En:, Splendor, Myth, and Vision : Nudes from the Prado, Clark Art Institute ; Museo Nacional del Prado,, 2016, pp. 152-155 n.21.

Burke, Jill, 'The European Nude 1400-1650' En:, Splendor, Myth, and Vision : Nudes from the Prado, Clark Art Institute ; Museo Nacional del Prado,, 2016, pp. 16-49 [30,42].

Other inventories +

Inv. Fernando VII, Palacio Nuevo, 1814-1818. Núm. s. n..
Primera Pieza de Libreria por parte de la Terraza [...] {21377} Vara y media de alto mas de vara de ancho, Cleopatra aplicandose el aspid = Guido

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1854-1858. Núm. 636.

Inv. Real Museo, 1857. Núm. 636.
Guido. / 636. Cleopatra. / Vencido y engañado Antonio por los suyos, Cleopatra, perdida la esperanza de seducir á Octavio con su hermosura, se da la muerte aplicando un aspid al pecho. Tiene tunica blanca y manto encarnado, y la mano izquierda sobre un canastillo de frutos y flores. (Media figura) (c.l.) / Alto 3 pies, 11 pulg, 3 lin; ancho 3 pies, 4 pulg, 6 lin.

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1872-1907. Núm. 258.
258.-Cleopatra. / Alto 1,10. Ancho 0,94.-Lienzo. / Vencido y engañado Antonio por los suyos, Cleopatra, perdida toda esperanza de seducir con su belleza á Octavio, se da muerte poniéndose un áspid al pecho. Cubre su hermoso cuerpo una ancha túnica de lino y un manto de grana con forro lila, y aplica al seno desnudo el venenoso reptil, teniendo la mano izquierda sobre el canastillo de flores en que estuvo aqél escondido. Media figura de tamaño natural. / C.L.-F.L.

Inscriptions +

Inscribed in orange. Front, lower left corner

Inscribed in white. Front, lower right corner


Exhibitions +

Splendor, Myth and Vision: Nudes from the Prado
Williamstown MA
12.06.2016 - 10.10.2016

From Titian to Goya. Great Masters from the Museo del Prado
13.09.2007 - 12.11.2007

From Titian to Goya. Great Masters from the Museo del Prado
29.06.2007 - 24.08.2007

De Tiziano a Goya. Obras maestras del Museo del Prado
14.07.2006 - 15.10.2006

De Tiziano a Goya. Obras maestras del Museo del Prado
24.03.2006 - 02.07.2006

Location +

Room 005 (On Display)

Update date: 19-01-2021 | Registry created on 02-12-2015

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