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Ajax and Achilles playing a board game, Attic black figure vase
Attic black figure amphora showing Ajax and Achilles playing a board game, found at Chiusi, Italy; c.530-520 BC

Putting on an exhibition about Troy and the Trojan War carries a particular weight of expectation. It’s at the centre of everything for so many of us: archaeologists, ancient historians, classicists, art historians, lovers of literature. A general exhibition needs to offer something to all these groups – and the interested public too: quite the minefield-in-waiting, but also an opportunity.

Attic red figure kylix showing Achilles swathed in his cloak as Agamemnon's heralds take away Briseis
Attic red figure kylix showing Agamemnon's heralds taking Briseis from Achilles, c.480 BC; found at Vulci, Etruria

So how to do it? The very idea that we could have an exhibition featuring ‘Troy and’ the Trojan War might have seemed outlandish before the 1870s, when the site might have been a Camelot, Utopia or Shangri-La. Schliemann’s summoning-up of an apparent real kernel to a dream is a moment of pure power. In a small way, like him, we’re coming to the exhibition craning to have the singing of the Muse lead us to where Troy once stood, to see something of the real Troy, even if we don’t believe in the literal truth of the myth. If you’re of that mind, there’s plenty for you here, both in answer to that desire, and because you’ll recognise kindred in all the artists inspired by the story. But don’t worry if it’s all new to you: the exhibition does a good job of introducing the newcomer to the myth, the hunt and the impact of Troy on the ‘falling leaves’ of generations since, the universality that allows them to be retold and recast without cease.

Tripod pot excavated by Schliemann, Troy II c.2550-2300 NC, burnt during World War II, 1945 (via BBC)

We begin, as an epic should, in media res (in the middle of things), with examples of the phenomena from each aspect of the exhibition. The story – the great black figure vase showing Achilles’ and Penthesilea, beautifully drawn at the moment he slays and falls in love, its Greek letters glistening black, tiny, neat, like some Archaic letraset. The archaeology: pots from Troy itself, burnt. I remember these from one of my own points of departure, Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War, memorably beginning with those flames: from the Trojan War or the downfall of Berlin, we know not which. We think we know it’s the latter now, but it’s just the sort of universal observation the Trojan myths provoke. Third, the after life – Anthony Caro’s Trojan War series, like a stage set, and the bleeding mount of Cy Twombly’s Vengeance of Achilles.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora, c.530BC, ceramic © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition proper begins with the laying out of the tale. How does one accomplish that, given the source is poetry, and oral poetry at that, to begin with? The answer lies in the power that Homer, then the playwrights and Virgil, exercised over Greek, Etruscan and Roman minds. The tales (and their tellers) are retold and celebrated in a vast array of media: wall paintings, intaglios, painted pots, sculpture. We’re taken through step-by-step: the world of the poets, then what they made, from the apple of discord, through the rage of Achilles to the wooden horse. Beyond the fall, we have the subsequent wanderings of the heroes, especially those of the man of twists and turns, and of the escaping Trojan lord, fated to be an exile, to a new beginning in a Hesperian west.

Wounded Aeneas tended by Iapyx as Iulus and Venus look on; wall-painting, Pompeii, House of P. Vedius Sinicius, AD 45-79

Homer is brought to us by the Baiae portrait with its sightless eyes, and the ‘Apotheosis of Homer’ stele showing the tribute of later arts, but it’s earlier objects from his own putative era that have more power for me. Chief among these is the ‘Cup of Nestor’ from Pithekoussai, brought west in Aeneas’ wake by some of the earliest Greek settlers in Italy. This is a real star of the show, though I doubt all visitors realised it: it could possibly have done with being a bit more prominently displayed. It was also pretty low down, which meant finding a good angle to see its scratched-in letters – some of the most important in all Greek writing – was difficult. (It’s not the only slightly low piece or label: those of a creaky disposition may wish to quaff a few pints of cod liver oil to build up sufficient litheness to benefit fully from the exhibition. I wonder if the intent is a laudable desire to make them a bit more accessible to younger visitors?). Pickiness apart, it’s a real coup to get it, otherwise you’ll have to come with us to Ischia. It’s also right next to the BM’s own famed pot depicting what’s hard not to see as the departure of Paris and Helen (the slightly lower-than-usual placement in this case works to real advantage ). That’s two out of three of the great early reflections of the story, arguably (missing only the Mykonos pot with the Trojan horse itself), put nicely together. Not bad going, BM.

Wall painting showing the departure of Helen for Troy, Pompeii, House of the Tragic Poet, AD 45-79 (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli g108)

The telling of the tale is pretty well done through a well-chosen array of objects leading us through all the main points in the narrative. One particularly good feature is the use of graphic displays to explain the narrative on some pots (not dissimilar to what was used successfully in the Ashurbanipal exhibition). A downside, if the exhibition’s busy, is that it can be a frustrating experience when so many faces are trying to peer at the same detail on a pot as others circle with simulated patience like stacked airliners around them. This is probably unavoidable with blockbuster exhibitions, though. From what I’ve seen, after lunch is a busy time and best avoided, so choose your slot wisely. While we’re doing constructive criticism, one or two pieces could be better lit (the Sophilos dinos, showing the marriage of Peleus, for example). It is just a couple though, and this isn’t true of a stellar Etruscan urn relief showing the abduction of Helen, the human figures loading her like an item of cargo, framed by the curve of the stern and the jutting beak of the ship. Its volume and shade are beautifully brought out by the lighting.

Funerary urn depicting the abduction of Helen by Paris, probably made at Volterrae, 125–100 BC (British Museum)

While there’s a lot that’s worth seeing in this well-laid-out section, I think my absolute favourites fall into three groups. Firstly, the collection of wall paintings the curators have managed to conjure over from Pompeii. I was especially happy to see wounded Aeneas face-to-face having long used him in teaching that moment in Epic, but we’re also treated to the Armour of Achilles, The Trojan horse and the almost cartoonish skeletons draped on rocks as Odysseus’ vessel distantly sails apparently placid seas, with sirens poised and waiting. Most particularly we get the unrestrained brilliance of the Departure of Helen for Troy. Pocked and faded like a retrieved photograph, the surpassing skill of the artist still shines through, a match for any Renaissance master. The stance of the servant to her right, here played by Musketeers-era Oliver Reed, the frozen motion of it all: wow.

Odysseus and the Sirens, Athenian jar, c.480-470 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

Next are two Roman-era sarcophagi, which impress not just by their sheer size, but their artistry (strangely enhanced, in the case of the chariot depiction, by being wind-worn to the point of blurring). The quality of the sarcophagus from Ephesus (normally found at Woburn Abbey), is particularly high in the scene where Patroclus’ body is brought in. the effect is heightened by the break in the stone at that point, giving it a theatrical quality. The dramatic framing, incidentally comes from the breaking-up of the sarcophagus for later incorporation as decoration into one of the gates of Ephesus (a site which has a few other things to see, if you fancy joining us).

Priam and Achilles, Roman silver cup, 1st century AD, National Museum of Denmark
Photograph: Roberta Fortuna and Kira Ursem © National Museet Denmark

Third in the list of things I’d happily take home, we have the Augustan-era Greco-Roman silver cups showing Homeric images from, of all places, Denmark. These are really magnificent and, unless you make the trip to Copenhagen, this is your one chance to see them. There’s Priam enduring ‘to do what no other mortal man on earth has done – I have brought to my lips the hands of the man who killed my child.’ One of the most powerful scenes of the Iliad, which has just shivered my spine thinking of it, with a craftsman to match its power. What questions these raise! How did they get there? What did the chieftain or subregulus who owned them know of the story, or what identities and songs did he map onto images whose tale did not travel with the objects themselves? We don’t know, but it’s a sign of the unexpected places the story can turn up. For another, follow into the last part of the narrative section, sheltered - or overshadowed - potently by the huge upsweeping curve of the ribs of the wooden horse, and see the depiction of Cassandra and the Horse from Pakistan, one of my favourite examples of Gandharan art.

Portrait of Heinrich Schliemann in 1877 by Sidney Hodges.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Foto Claudia Klein.

We now know the story, and like many before who’ve fallen under the spell, it’s time for us to seek the true site of Troy. This brings us to the archaeology, any recounting of which is inevitably interwoven with the figure of Heinrich Schliemann, fabulist, liar, impossible-to-work-with stealer-of-credit. And there he is gazing out from that famous Sydney Hodges portrait (the sound you hear is goosebumps popping up on scores of visiting aficionados). I’ve wanted to see this for a while.

'Owl-facced pot', Troy II-V (c.2550-1750 BC), Troy (Berlin)

The Trojan finds are arranged in a sort of amphitheatrical ellipse under Schliemann’s gaze. On the left (a good idea, though it took me a little while to realise) the material’s arranged according to the levels of the site, from Bronze Age through to Roman; a nice touch.

Priam's Treasure, Schliemann's photograph for his Atlas, 1874

Much of what’s on display is from Troy II-V, which Schliemann at first took to be Trojan War Troy (with shocking archaeological consequences), though any such city must be over a millennium later; much of it’s even from Priam’s Treasure itself, which is fantastic to see. Obviously, the original ‘Jewels of Helen’ aren’t included, but a convincing electrotype copy of them appears at the end of the exhibition, the nearest most of us will ever get. It might have had a little more impact here, and I think a model of the site would have worked well (though there is a virtual representation), but there’s more than enough to enjoy.

Hittite cuneiform tablet mentioning 'Wilusa', probably their name for Troy - compare the Greek Ilios after the 'w' (digamma) dropped out of the language; Hattusa, c.1280 BC (British Museum)

I at first wondered if this section might, for some visitors, see a mirroring of reactions to Schliemann’s initial discoveries (including the occasional self-doubt of Schliemann himself): disappointment. Aesthetically, it would be hard to place the pottery that forms the majority of it in the same class as the red and black figure that’s come before in the exhibition. This didn’t seem to be the case though; to judge by the whipping-out of phone cameras, people were fascinated. Like gift-objects in Homer, these seem to have taken on an indefinable extra lustre from their biographies. Just as Schliemann imagined Priam, Achilles, Helen, Odysseus and Agamemnon into being at his sites or while cradling finds, it’s hard not to have a frisson at seeing so much material from one of the great, pioneering archaeological excavations by pretty much the first archaeologist you’d ever heard of. Additional points are awarded to those of us even more excited by seeing some of Frank Calvert’s finds from his excavations in the Troad; though not in themselves earth-shattering, their link to archaeology’s foundation legend makes them a highlight.

William Simpson, Excavations at Hissarlik, Mount Ida in the distance. Watercolour, 1877 (British Museum)

These last two sections of the exhibitions are in their different ways, as much reactions and dialogues with the original stories the ancients pots and reliefs are. They’re attempts to extract truths from them and relate them to present concerns. The ‘truths’ are different between and within the various cases, of course. With the archaeology, it’s about the search to relate the poems to an historical reality. After all, without the Iliad, Hissarlik might be one of those sites with scattered surface remains of potential interest down the line. For the last section of the exhibition, it’s about what we take from the stories: what we decide they tell us about war and peace, what it is to be a man or a woman, and have duty or fame or circumstance drive us.

Philip Rundell (1746-1827), Shield of Achilles 1821-22 (Royal Collection)

Unlike the site of Troy, the story’s never been forgotten. It’s remained at the heart of European culture since its first retellings: the skein wasn’t severed with the fall of Rome, even if in the west Homer ceded place for a time to Virgil and the Latin tradition. The cultural centrality alone – the fortune to be sung of by the greatest poetic exponents in the two great prestige languages - would have made it a gravity well for referencing. But the universality of the story, the feeling when reading that we are not just observers of the harrowing confrontation of Aeneas and Dido, of the pain of Achilles or Priam as they throw themselves on the ground in black, scarifying pain, or Helen’s self-loathing (or even Diomedes’ canny observation of boundaries in the midst of supervening glory) – not just observers, but participants. We’ve felt this way, or at least understand it and empathise or admire. In the Trojan stories, whatever the details, Homer and Virgil articulate for us, in grander terms, something we’ve lived with and make it meaningful and eternal. How could that not provoke and inspire artists – to agreement or disputation, or to take up and recast that power to say something new with it, or restate something old and powerful.

That’s what this last part of the exhibition encompasses with a laying out of some of the responses to the poems, plays and images wrought out of the Trojan War since classical times. There’s a fairly broad array here, something to like, dislike or respond to for everyone, from mediaeval to neon.

Clytemnestra by John Collier, 1882 (Guilldhall Art Gallery 577)

The catalogue of the artists itself tells the tale of the stories’ power – Rubens, Burne-Jones, Morris, Paolozzi, Cranach, Poussin, Canova. You might find it’s not the headline names that are necessarily the ones you most carry away with you, though. For example, I loved the precision and crispness of New Zealand artist Marian Maguire’s lithograph Te Whiti and Titokowaru discuss the question, ‘What is Peace’, which nicely borrows and resets the image of Ajax and Achilles at their board game. Others might like to engage with the dialogue it sets up with the original, and with its own context. Or you might by more struck by the deathly pale sirens boarding Odysseus’ vessel in Draper’s painting, strangely more threatening for their more human appearance, or by the chill of Hector’s bone-white corpse surrounded by guilty dogs, the rich skill of the fifteenth century illustrations to the Roman de Troie or the sheer drama of the firm-jawed brazen power of Collier's huge Clytemnestra, accentuated by astute placing. It all marks a fitting closing act in the exhibition’s triptych, showing the myth’s endless capacity to act as a resource for the imagination, its ability despite its great age constantly to be new. It can always sneak some new insight in under another guise. There ought to be a term for that.

Relief from a Roman sarcophagus with scenes from the Trojan War, AD 175-200, probably from Rome (Ashmolean Museum, ANMichaelis 111)

The exhibition is on until March 8th. If it, or an already burning interest in Troy, has inspired you to see more, we’ve created a tailor made tour of the Troad.

There is a companion book, rather than a catalogue, beautifully illustrated. Like the exhibition itself, it’s a useful gathering together of all you need to know – anyone teaching epic would find it, and a visit, useful.

(Two things in passing: while the book’s good, I do lament the seeming demise of old-style catalogues, with their list and description of all you’ve seen. They were a good resource, and souvenir. There’s a slight irony in Homer not having a catalogue, for those who like niche observations. Second: the pedant in me wants to point out the consistent, if understandable, misspelling of Chalcocondyles.)

The exhibition features Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s Achilles in the Trench as part of its exploration of the connections between the Trojan War and the Gallipoli campaign. I wrote about this in a much earlier blog post which you can find here.


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