Bust of Cleopatra

Italian (Mantua)
about 1519–22
Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi (Italian, about 1460–1528)


64.45 cm (25 3/8 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Metal; bronze, with traces of gilding

On View

Italian Renaissance Gallery (Gallery 206)





Patinated black surface (with bronze shining through), and traces of gilding. Life-size bust with head turned and bent, eyes downcast, Classical face, wavy hair. Crown and serpent on base identify it as Cleopatra. Diadem, two buttons at top of gown.

This bust is identified as Cleopatra, ancient queen of Egypt, by her crown and by the small serpent that decorates the base. Once Cleopatra lost all hope of regaining control of Egypt from the Romans, she is believed to have committed suicide by the poisonous bite of a snake. The bust reflects an ancient Roman prototype and was made by an artist whose nickname, Antico, resulted from his exceptional skill in such ancient techniques as bronze casting. The bust probably belonged to Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua.


By 1626, probably in the collection of Ferdinando Gonzaga (b. 1587 - d. 1626), Mantua [see note 1]. Said to have been acquired either in Belgium or in England by Julius Goldschmidt (b. 1882 - d. 1964), London [see note 2]; 1964, sold by the estate of Julius Goldschmidt to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 9, 1964)

[1] This sculpture has been associated with a bronze bust of "a woman with two crowns" (perhaps referring to the double crown in the present bust) included in the inventory of the estate of Ferdinando Gonzaga in 1627 (see Detlef Heikamp, L'Antico, Milan 1966, pl. XV). This has led to the hypothesis that it was one of several "bronze heads" that Antico wrote about to Isabella d'Este (b. 1474 - d. 1539) in 1519. However, this has not been proven. See, for example, Ann Hersey Allison, “L’Antico e i fratelli Lombardo: relazioni tra Venezia e le corti di Mantova e Ferrara, circa 1490-1530,” in L’industria artistica del Bronzo del Rinascimento a Venezia e nell’Italia Settentrionale, ed. Matteo Ceriana and Victoria Avery (2007), pp. 123-126.

[2] That the bust was discovered in Belgium is according to notes in the MFA curatorial file, and has been published by Ann Hersey Allison, "The Bronzes of Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi, called Antico," Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien 89/90 (1993-1994), p. 240. According to information provided by curator Hanns Swarzenski at the time of the sculpture's acquisition, it had been "recently discovered in England" by dealer Julius Goldschmidt.

Credit Line

William Francis Warden Fund