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  • AutorenbildSilvio Bär

Exhibition Report I: Troy at the British Museum in London

Troy sells. Whenever Homer, the Beautiful Helen and the Wooden Horse are advertised, a large audience is guaranteed. From 21 November 2019 to 8 March 2020, the British Museum in London is hosting a special exhibition on “Troy: Myth and Reality”. The title of the exhibition is reminiscent of the legendary exhibition “Troia: Traum und Wirklichkeit” that was displayed in several German cities in 2001/02. Back then, Troy was subject to a hot scholarly – as well as political – debate (the “Tübinger Gelehrtenstreit”) about the dimension and importance of the city of Troy and the reliability of Homer’s Iliad as a source of a ‘historical’ Trojan War. The debate came to an end after the untimely death of Manfred Korfmann (the former chief excavator at Troy) in 2005, but the public interest in Troy, Homer, and the Trojan War remains unbroken, as anyone visiting the British Museum these days will notice immediately.

The exhibition is roughly divided into three major sections. First, the visitor is presented with various visual representations of scenes from the Trojan War in Graeco-Roman antiquity as well as other ancient objects pertaining to Trojan contexts. Then follows a section on the history of scholarship, with a focus on early manuscripts and prints of the Homeric epics as well as the excavation of the city of Troy. Finally, numerous post-ancient pieces of reception of the myth of Troy (for obvious reasons mainly from the visual arts) are exposed. Exhibits come from the British Museum itself, from various museums from the UK (such as, for example, the Ashmolean Museum [Oxford] and the Victoria & Albert Museum [London]), and from several places abroad (like, for example, the Antikensammlung and the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples).

Those who secretly may have been hoping to see Priam’s treasure, which came into Russian hands at the end of WWII and is now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, got disappointed: Schliemann’s treasure was not lent. Yet, treasures there are many to be found. For me (a classical philologist and literary scholar), one great highlight was Nestor’s Cup, a little wine cup from the eight century B.C. that is famous for bearing one of the earliest extant examples of the Greek alphabet. Depending on how the fragmentary inscription is restored, the cup offers an example of a speaking vessel (“I am the cup of Nestor”) or an allusion to Nestor’s cup in the Iliad (“there was a cup of Nestor”). In both cases, the reference to the cup of the mythological Nestor is self-ironic (or at least humorous), since Nestor’s vessel is described in the Iliad as being gigantic, whereas this actual object is comparatively small.

Nestor’s Cup stands emblematically for the way textual and material sources about Troy form a symbiosis in many ways. The Homeric epics, the myth of Troy and the art of writing are inextricably intertwined (yet the exact role writing played in the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey is still a matter of scholarly dispute). Furthermore, Nestor’s Cup may also be seen as the earliest surviving piece of creative reception of the Iliad (depending, as said, on how exactly the fragmentary inscription is supplemented). Accordingly, the exhibition does not imply a strict differentiation between antiquity and its reception and/or scholarship: although three sections can roughly be distinguished, the idea of a neat distinction between the ancient world and its rediscovery and exploration is continously disrupted. Most notably, The Wounded Achilles by Filippo Albacini (1777–1858), a neoclassical statue displaying Achilles in his agony after the fatal arrow has pierced his vulnerable heel, is not only on the cover of the exhibition catalogue, but it is virtually in the centre of the exhibition. First, the visitor passes by it when going through the ‘antiquity section’, but then one comes across it again on the way to what could be called the ‘reception section’. The figure of the dying Achilles thus becomes a symbol of the unbroken continuity of Troy, its myth and its reality from the archaic Greek period to today.

However, my personal favourite object in the exhibition was a Greek vase: a black-figure skyphos from Thebes, dated to c. 425–375 B.C., which shows two scenes from the Odyssey (see the pictures below). On the one side we can see Odysseus visiting the sorceress Circe who is offering her magic potion to Odysseus, planning to transform him into a pig like she did with his comrades – but Odysseus is protected by a herb that Hermes has given him, and he is holding his sword, prepared to strike. On the other side of the vase, Odysseus is depicted crossing the sea on a raft made of wine amphorae, assisted by Boreas, the god of the North Wind. This vase painting may not be the most elaborate – but it is highly insightful. The facial expression of Odysseus and Circe, Odysseus’ potbelly, and (in particular) the use of wine amphorae as a raft: all this suggests that the painter may very likely have been inspired by a satyr play. Like tragedy, the satyr play took its inspiration from mythology (and often enough episodes from the Trojan War were taken); but unlike tragedy, the satyr play came with a humorous, light-hearted turn – and an emphasis on the pleasures of ebriety.

Troy as a constant source of reworking and inspiration over a period of 2800 years: this is what impressed me most about this exhibition. The aforementioned Greek vase is one example, but there are many more: a fresco from Pompeii with Aeneas who, after having been wounded in battle, is being treated by his doctor, while his little son Ascanius is drying his tears (here the model was Vergil’s Aeneid rather than the Homeric epics); the first printed edition of Homer’s epics by Demetrius Chalcondylas, printed in Florence in 1488; Alexander Pope’s attempt at reconstructing Achilles’ shield in the handwritten draft of his Iliad translation from 1720; the painting The Sirens’ Song by Romare Bearden (1911–1988), in which the voyage of Odysseus and his comrades is transferred to the Carribean islands – the stream of creative as well as scholarly reception is uninterrupted.

For those visitors who take pleasure in contemporary museology, the Troy exhibition offers much as well. It features several curatorial interventions such as, for example, a huge ribcage that hangs from the ceiling and suggests the Wooden Horse attracting the visitors. Further, the video installation Queens of Syria (a modern adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women) creates an unexpected audio-visual effect. I visited the exhibition on two afternoons in January 2020 and still had to rush through the last part because the security guards wanted to close the museum – therefore I was, unfortunately, able to catch only a quick glimpse of the picture that shows Sophia Schliemann wearing what Heinrich Schliemann thought to be “The Jewels of Helen”. At this point, the myth of Troy seemed to be fading, and reality had definitely taken over.

References (print):

  • [Editorial collective]. 2001. Troia: Traum und Wirklichkeit. Stuttgart: Konrad Theiss.

  • Villing, Alexandra, J. Lesley Fitton, Victoria Donnellan and Andrew Shapland (eds.). 2019. The BP exhibition Troy: myth and reality. London: Thames & Hudson.

Odysseus being enchanted by Circe and crossing the sea on a raft of wine amphorae. Black-figure cup from Thebes, c. 425–375 B.C., now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Photographs taken by Silvio Bär at the British Museum, London (2020).

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