The Most Beautiful Ballroom in Venice
The palace is owned by RAI, the Italian state broadcasting company, and every few months I pop by and ask if I can see the frescoes. But each time I am told that they are in restauro (under restoration). However, I now have reason to believe that I am being fobbed off, as I have heard that the ballroom can be hired for private functions.
The ballroom was decorated in the 1740s with frescoes by Giambattista Tiepolo and Girolamo Mengozzi-Colonna. Mengozzi-Colonna, who was the greatest quadraturista of his age, painted the trompe l'oeil architecture, while Tiepolo did the story telling.The most famous frescoes illustrate scenes from the lives of Anthony and Cleopatra.
Tiepolo included a portrait of himself and his fellow painter in the group of spectators on the left. Tiepolo is the character with the wonderful aquiline nose, while Colonna is the figure to his left. Cleopatra may be a depiction of the lady of the house, Maria Labia.
Cleopatra's legendary lavish banquet (during which she is said to have dissolved a pearl in a glass of vinegar and drank the results) would have appealed to the Labia family, Spanish nouveau-riches who, having bought their way into the Venetian nobility, were keen to impress with extravagant dinners of their own. As a finale to one banquet a Labia lord is said to have thrown the forty gold plates which the guests had been eating off into the canal, while calmly quipping: "L'abia o non abia, sarò sempre Labia" (Whether I have or not, I will always be Labia).
The story of Cleopatra's banquet and the pearl is told by Pliny the Elder and is, of course, an impossible feat. And I think the story of the later banquet should be treated with equal scepticism. Having said that, why should we let the facts get in the way of two great tales!