Immortal longings

Art - Ned Denny is underwhelmed by the many images of the great Egyptian queen

This is an exhibition that seems to tell us more about the modern-day cult of celebrity than it does about Cleopatra. Like a sale of some Hollywood starlet's memorabilia or personal effects, it parades before us an array of objects that have, at best, a tenuous link to the lady in question. Thus the head of a woman who may or may not be Cleopatra (the equivalent of the professional lookalike? The blurred paparazzo shot?) rests cheek by jowl with advertising material relating to Cecil B De Mille's 1934 biopic ("Let Best's Hairdressers give you CLEOPATRA BANGS . . . Best's finds them much too effective to be allowed to remain ancient history, so we've appropriated them for modern use, combining them with the latest in up-swept coiffures").

There are rows and rows of marble heads of her formidable-looking Ptolemaic ancestors, as well as an insipid 19th-century bust of a literary hostess impersonating her. There's a Tiepolo sketch of her dissolving the famous pearl in her cup of wine, and a Georgian pocket watch with a sickly-sweet depiction of her suicide. All that is missing, it seems, is a sheaf of preparatory drawings for the Asterix book in which she and her nose play such a prominent role.

The basic problem for curators in pursuit of Cleopatra's likeness is that the greatest representations of her - the ones in which she really lives - are literary ones. From Plutarch's description of her presence as "utterly spellbinding" (although he countered that "her beauty was not in and for itself incomparable") down to the protean enchantress of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the particularities of her appearance have always been left to the imagination. And there are as many different Cleopatras as there are readers of those texts.

None of which should go to suggest that she is a wholly literary creation. The facts of her life - what we can discern of them, at any rate - are remarkable. Ascending the throne at the age of 17, she was driven into exile three years later and retreated to Arabia, where she contrived to raise an army. Then followed her enchantment of Caesar (smuggling herself into the royal palace, according to Plutarch, in a rolled-up sack) and her legendary appearance, dressed as Aphrodite in a gilded boat, before Mark Antony. Even Shakespeare's febrile description of the spectacle - "So perfumed that/The winds were love-sick" - is based on contemporary accounts.

Equally central to Cleopatra's allure is Alexandria itself, through whose streets she and Antony are said to have run rampage under cover of darkness. Alexandria was the louche city of dreams and dream interpreters, in contrast to cold, patrician, militaristic Rome. Men of action had tended either to pass through quickly (witness the tellingly brief stays of Octavian, Nelson and Napoleon) or to fall prey to Alexandria's bibulous charms. Life would have been conducted under the mystic gaze of the Egyptian deities, ancient statues of which - as recent excavations have revealed - filled the place.

And it is the objects in the show that suggest life in the Alexandria of the day which, in turn, evoke Cleopatra most strongly. Pieces of Alexandrian jewellery, for example - rings set with wine-coloured garnet, extraordinarily elaborate earrings, a pair of gold armlets in the form of coiled serpents - carry a more powerful charge of her presence than any number of putative portrait-heads or sentimental paintings. Similarly, a coquettish ghost-presence hovers around a set of agate beakers of a type she might have raised to her lips, and that is all the more vivid for being imagined.

Which brings us to the fundamental problem with the show's supposed highlight, a series of eight "previously unrecognised" images of Cleopatra. The first observation to be made about these is that the identification is not quite as watertight as the publicity blurb might suggest. Certain iconographical features (particularly the unusual triple uraeus, or cobra-head symbol), combined with a speculative dating of the statues, make it possible (but not certain) that the sitter is Cleopatra. The second observation is of the highly formalised nature of Ptolemaic sculpture. In contrast to the scrupulous attention paid by Roman sculptors to their subject's features, the Egyptian canon allowed only a few small detractions from the norm - a slightly downturned mouth, say, or somewhat rounder cheeks - to individualise the head. What we have here, then, is not the radiant face of the much-dreamt-of queen, but the blank countenance of an alien culture.

That is not to say there are not some wonderful things in the exhibition. The statue carved from black basalt is a masterpiece of dark eroticism, the queen's naked body half-articulated beneath an imaginary veil. The giant head of Cleopatra's son Caesarion that was recently raised from the waters of the Mediterranean is also here, alongside statuary on loan from collections in both Rome and Alexandria. But it is all so poorly presented that you come away feeling dazed, confused and distinctly underwhelmed.

"Cleopatra of Egypt: from history to myth" is at the British Museum (020 7323 8000) until 26 August

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, John Prescott: sinking fast