Squared for transfer and enlargement, this composition is a study for one of the oval shaped paintings decorating the studiolo (study room) of Francesco de’ Medici in the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence. Its subject is based on the quarrel between Cleopatra and Marc Anthony, recorded by the classical author Pliny the Elder, over who could give the most lavish feast. Demonstrating her wealth, the queen melted in wine a priceless pearl from her earrings. To stop Cleopatra from destroying her second pearl the referee of the wager announced her as the winner.
This highly finished drawing is a preparatory study for the painting of the same subject realised by Allori for the Studiolo of Francesco I de’ Medici in the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence. Oval-shaped like the related painting, the composition was first sketched in black chalk, which was later traced in black and brown ink, both freehand and with ruler and stylus in the architecture. The chiaroscuro effects were done with brush and iron gall ink wash, and the white highlights with lead white. Its preparatory nature is further confirmed by the fact that the sheet is squared, showing that the artist had in mind the later enlargement and transfer of the composition to the painting. The preliminary drawing is visible in the foreground, where there are many pentimenti in black chalk.
The drawing’s subject is inspired by one of Pliny’s tales in his Natural History, narrating the challenge between Cleopatra and Marc Anthony over who could give the most lavish feast. To show her extravagant wealth, the Egyptian queen melts one of the two largest pearls in the world, which she wore as earrings, in wine. The drawing depicts the story’s culminating moment, when Cleopatra is about to unhook her second pearl, but she is stopped by Plancus, chosen referee of the wager. Cleopatra is at the centre of the scene, while Plancus sits at her left side and Marc Anthony in front of her, to the left. The banquet takes place within a sumptuous hall lit by torches and chandeliers. An ornate two-tiered intercolumniation, decorated with tapestries depicting the Labours of Hercules, acts as a theatrical backdrop to the scene. A soldier dominates the left side of the composition while the Nile God occupies the lower foreground.
Despite its preparatory nature, the drawing shows a high degree of finish, both in terms of composition and technique. Therefore, it can also be considered as an independent work that reflects the bravura and ingegno of its creator, who was to become one of the leading exponents of the Florentine graphic tradition of the second half of the sixteenth-century. The commission for the Studiolo represents the start of Allori’s artistic success within the Medici court. In these years he rapidly rose from his position as Bronzino’s favourite pupil to leader of one of Florence’s most important workshops of the time. The fact that the drawing can be interpreted as a work of art in itself attests to the importance given to the field of disegno in the second half of the Cinquecento. Drawings began to be considered as essential points of departure of the artistic process, especially within the Florentine Accademia del Disegno, where Allori was one of the first consuls.
Allori understood that ‘the development of the figurative arts had to be inscribed within the institutionalization of culture promoted by the Medici regime’. The drawing is, in fact, filled with iconographic imagery connected to the Medici family. The Nile God is a direct reference to the Nilo Vaticano statue in the Belvedere courtyard that had the Medici coat of arms sculpted on its base. The myth of the Labours of Hercules had been connected to the Medici family since the reign of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Even the two dogs have been identified as white Italian greyhounds, the Medici’s favourite breed. Furthermore, the overall lavishness of the banquet scene reflected the opulence of the Grand Ducal court.
Unlike his father Cosimo I, Francesco I was not inclined towards grand public commissions, rather he was mostly driven to projects for his own private interests. The Prince was captivated by the study and collection of gemstones and rare natural specimens, commissioning the Studiolo specifically for the purpose of safeguarding his precious collection. The design and decoration were jointly supervised by Giorgio Vasari, Vincenzo Borghini and Francesco I, who hired thirty-one among the most eminent Florentine painters and sculptors of the time; the Studiolo thus became a showcase of the city’s artistic talents active in the last decades of the Cinquecento. The plan of the room was designed around the Renaissance dualism of Nature and Art and the Prince’s collection organised according to the Pythagorean tetrad of earth, air, fire, and water. Allori’s painting of the Banquet was commissioned for the lower register of the wall dedicated to Water, and situated below the Pearl Fishers, also by the artist’s hand. Due to its unified theme and its concentration of artistic talent, the Studiolo can be considered as one of the earliest examples of Wunderkammer, ‘whose purpose was to bring all of nature into one space.’