Let’s start with a fact that definitely isn’t true: that the city of London was founded by a Trojan refugee and originally called Troia Nova.
The 12th century English chronicler responsible for this egregious claim is just one of countless individuals who, over the course of millennia, have retold and reinterpreted Homer’s 8th century BC story about the Trojan war. This is the subject of the British Museum’s latest exhibition, ‘Troy: myth and reality’, which explores how this legendary tale has been engaged with through history.
The aim and scope of this is ambitious: how do you re-evaluate a story known to almost all the ancient Mediterranean world and a hefty chunk of the modern? The exhibition makes a pretty good stab at it. Spanning more than two millennia, it sets out its bookends early on, pairing a Cy Twombly work, Vengeance of Achilles (1978), with a 6th century BC Greek vase depicting the moment Achilles kills Penthiselea, Queen of the Amazons. The show is then split into two halves, first charting the ancient depictions of the Troy story, then moving onto the more modern responses to the narrative – the Renaissance masters, Pre-Raphaelites, and contemporary artists. Object highlights include an Etruscan imagining of the Judgement of Paris, a Roman fresco of an uncertain Helen boarding her ship to Troy, and a tiny sardonyx ring of Odysseus and Diomedes stealing the statue of Athena from Troy. Highlights from more recent periods include the wounded Achilles (1825) by Albacini (the posterboy of the exhibition) and Peter Paul Rubens’ Wrath of Achilles (1630-35).
Between these two periods, ancient and modern, the show offers an overview of the archaeological digs that took place in the 19th century at the site of Troy. The attempts at historicising the Iliad, funded by German businesswoman Heinrich Schliemann, had varied success; yet they still claimed to have found evidence of most episodes from Homer’s epic. Here, one must critique that the exhibition does not consider Schliemann’s invasive practices in the context of modern archaeological practice. What is also not addressed is the ongoing dispute between various museums over the treasures that Schliemann discovered. The works on display are almost completely borrowed from British and German collections, neglecting to include anything from the rich collections held by Russian institutions.
Perhaps the British Museum is exposing some myths inherent in the politicised and emotionalised objects that they chose to show or not to show. But through its own selective curation, the exhibition in itself becomes another espousal of contemporary realities using the myth of Troy.