This self-portrait is a study for a detail in the Banquet of Cleopatra, a fresco that is part of a large frescoed room decoration in the Palazzo Labia in Venice (Fig. 1; M. Gemin and F. Pedrocco, Giambattista Tiepolo: I dipinti: Opera completa, Venice, 1993, no. 376). The project was one of Giovanni Battista's most important and splendid secular fresco commissions, and for it he collaborated with Girolamo Mengozzi Colonna (circa 1688-1766). The latter was responsible for the simulated architecture while Tiepolo painted the figures. The two main frescoes show scenes from the love story of Cleopatra and Antony: the Banquet of Cleopatra shows the Egyptian queen holding one of her famous pearls that she is about to dissolve in a cup of wine, and the other, the Meeting of Cleopatra and Antony, shows the meeting of the two lovers at a port (M. Gemin and F. Pedrocco, op. cit., nos. 375-6).
No documentation relating to the commission and its date of execution has survived, but Michael Levey suggested that the frescoes were made in the 1740s, before the artist left for Würzburg in November 1750 (M. Levey, Giambattista Tiepolo: his life and art, New Haven and London, 1986, pp. 143 and 160). This date seems to be supported by a pen and ink study for the Banquet of Cleopatra that is dated 1743 (M. Levey, op. cit., p. 154, no. 142). As suggested by Levey, this drawing seems to be a study for an oil painting of the same subject in the National Gallery, London (Inv. NG6409; M. Levey, op. cit., pp. 154-6, no. 144) which Levey considered likely to be a modello for the fresco in the Palazzo Labia.
A total of eighteen drawings related to the Banquet of Cleopatra have been listed by George Knox (G. Knox, op. cit., Appendix, X 64). The present drawing corresponds closely with the fresco; while the hat and the collar have been developed and modified, the portrait itself remains unaltered. Including the present one, seven of the eighteenth drawings listed by Knox came from of the Bossi-Beyerlen collection, one of the largest collections of drawings by the Tiepolo's ever assembled.
Fig. 1. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Banquet of Cleopatra, detail, Palazzo Labia, Venice.