Jane Clinton takes a look at the British Museum’s new exhibition, which celebrates the legacy of the Trojan War
13 December, 2019 — By Jane Clinton
Fillippo Albacini’s The Wounded Achilles
IT is a story that has been told for more than 3,000 years. The Trojan War, with its tales of war, love and loss have inspired poets and artists from Homer to Derek Walcott and Rubens among many others.
A major new British Museum exhibition, Troy: Myth and Reality, looks at the legacy of this war and their characters, including the enigmatic Helen, the warrior Achilles and of course the Trojan Horse.
The story goes that the beautiful Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, is abducted by the Trojan Prince, Paris.
To avenge this, all the kingdoms across Greece unite to bring together a fleet of around 1,000 ships and an estimated 100,000 men.
War rages between the Greeks and the Trojans for 10 years. Then, in a cunning twist, the Greeks decide to wrong-foot their opponents. They build a huge horse (the Trojan Horse) from pine trees and hide their best warriors inside it. The Trojans think the Greeks have given up but are taken by surprise when they emerge from the horse and so Troy falls.
Troy and the Trojan War was central to Greek thought and Greek art.
They are perhaps best known through Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid.
The Iliad and The Odyssey tells the story of the 10-year Trojan war. Virgil’s Aeneid epic poem gives the most detailed, dramatic description of the fall of Troy that survives from the ancient world.
Even today some of our common sayings are references to this famous war: from “Trojan horse” which alludes to subterfuge and deception and “Achilles heel” that supposedly signifies a spot of weakness.
This exhibition is the first major Troy exhibition in the UK. It is also the first to feature finds by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. His help in rediscovering Troy in modern Turkey and his work at the site between 1870 and 1890 made him world famous.
Finds from his excavations including pottery, silver vessels, bronze weapons and stone sculptures were displayed in London in the 1870s.
Schliemann originally offered them to the British Museum to display but they had to decline the offer as they did not have enough space.
Now, for the first time in nearly 150 years, Berlin Museums have loaned these artefacts to the UK.
Around 300 items are on display that reveal the story of Troy and its wider impact right up to Hollywood blockbusters such as Troy.
Highlights in the exhibition include the marble sculpture, The Wounded Achilles, by Filippo Albacini (1777-1858). In a collaboration with Chatsworth House the gilded arrow has been restored for this exhibition. It gleams, and the sculpture is breathtaking.
There is also the exquisite Roman silver cup depicting a meeting between Priam (King of Troy) and Achilles. Achilles has killed Priam’s son, Hector, and will not release his body. In the end Achilles’ resolve softens and he relents.
Works by the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, as well as Blake and Cranach make this vast exhibition a delight.
With the old is also the new including the striking photograph, Judgement of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen, which is a reimagining of the Rubens masterpiece by the artist Eleanor Antin. Here, this one of a series called Helen’s Odyssey, we are prompted to re-examine previous interpretations of Helen.
In a new approach, the British Museum has co-produced content from community groups and charities, Crisis and Waterloo Uncovered, for displaced people and soldiers respectively. Their responses to the themes of war, loss and tragedy sit alongside some of the key exhibits.
Their visceral reactions to these themes that appear so vividly in the account of the Trojan War perhaps prove why 3,000 years later we are still so moved by the story of Troy.
• Troy: Myth and Reality is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, WC2, until March 8, 2020. For details visit www.britishmuseum.org/Troy or call 020 7323 7181.