The Artful Traveler: Who Was the Real Cleopatra?
By Bobbie Leigh
In the final gallery of the Franklin Institute's new show, "Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt," we get the Liz Taylor and Claudette Colbert popular imagination version of Cleopatra. More fiction than fact, Hollywood portrayed her as cunning sex kitten who seduced two of the most powerful Romans of her time. But in all the preceding galleries of Franklin Institute's show, you get a much more fleshed out view of the Hellenistic queen (69-30 BC), Egypt's last pharaoh. With artifacts and film, the other galleries create a context for some understanding of how and where Cleopatra lived and new insight into how she died.
The exhibition begins with a short dramatic film, followed by an audio tour narrated in first person by an actress portraying Cleopatra who emerges as a complex, ambitious diplomat, not just the scheming, wiley young queen we see mythologized in film. For a start, she was of Greek descent, was an accomplished linguist who spoke several languages and for a woman of a royal household was amazingly well educated when she came to the throne in 51 BC. She was also an astute politician who navigated alliances with Rome through her union with Julius Caesar and after Caesar's death with Marcus Antonius. Some say she died of a broken heart after he committed suicide, but in this exhibition it is suggested that the snake bite that supposedly killed her might have been an invention of the Romans as they went to great extremes to destroy her images and her reputation. A more likely explanation for her suicide is that she took her own life to prevent the humiliation of being paraded around Rome as a war trophy after her and Antonius' crushing defeat at the Battle of Actium. Her tomb has never been found, but the exhibition documents Egyptian archaeologists' search for it at a Ptolemaic temple about 30 miles west of Alexandria,
After her death, earthquakes and tidal waves destroyed her capital, Alexandria. Now, after some ten years of research led by French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team, we can actually see in underwater videos the murky images of her royal quarters submerged for centuries beneath the sea. The videos of Goddio and his team of red-suited marine archaeologists make this show come alive. We see them in under-water-videos examining their discoveries amid silt and clay and in some cases preparing them to be lifted out of the water, surfacing after nearly 2000 years. The team's discoveries of jewelry, coins, gold objects, household goods, and colossal statues once buried off the coast of the modern city of Alexandria and in the Bay of Aboukir range from about the 7th century BC to the 8th century. The two other ancient cities investigated by the Goddio team are Heracleion and Canopus, which like Alexandria, disappeared into the sea as a result of natural disasters.
Perhaps the most stunning artifacts discovered by the team are two 16-foot tall colossal figures of a Ptolemaic king and queen from the Temple of Amon at Heracleion. Another is a massive stone head of Caesarion, said to be Cleopatra's first child and Caesar's son although never officially acknowledged by him. Another favorite is an original papyrus document from Cleopatra's time with an inscription signed in Greek by the ruler with the words "make it happen."
Keep in mind that this show is a production of Arts and Exhibitions International. Like the company's King Tut show in New York, it is intended for a broad audience of all ages with a glossy presentation that at times feels over-hyped and overproduced.
On view through January 2, 2011, tickets are timed, dated, and range from $11-$29.50. Details at www.fi.edu and www.searchforcleopatra.com; 877-TFI-TIXS. For information about hotel packages and travel, visit Philadelphia.