Why has the ravaged fallen city been such an inspiration to artists for millennia? Ahead of an epic show at the British Museum, our writer unravels its extraordinary influence
Troy is a real place. The excavated city of tumbled stone at Hisarlık in western Turkey, near the mouth of the Dardanelles, is generally accepted as the site of its remains. But perhaps Troy is now more a zone of the imagination, rebuilt and repeopled every time someone makes it afresh in their mind – through the act of reading or looking, writing or making.
It all started with the Homeric poems: The Iliad, about the Trojan war; and The Odyssey, about Greek fighter Odysseus’s troubled, circuitous return home after victory. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the first century BC scholar, called Homer the source from which every sea, every fountain, every river flows. As if to prove his point, he was quoting Homer when he wrote that (specifically, the ancient Greek poet’s description of the ocean, the encircling girdle of waters that surrounds the known world, in book 21 of The Iliad).
The poems – drawing on many years of orally transmitted song and written down somewhere between the late 8th and late 7th centuries BC – loom inescapably large in later classical literature. Sappho remade Troy in her heartstopping love poetry, allowing the sexy, semi-divine, magnetic figure of Helen, over whom the war was fought, to remind her of her own alluring lover. The Greek tragedians rebuilt Troy and the places connected with it in such plays as Hecuba and Iphigenia in Aulis and Agamemnon. Virgil recreated it magnificently as a Roman national epic.
People are still remaking it, including in recent years the writers Seamus Heaney, Pat Barker and Alice Oswald. Artists have been similarly drawn to the tale. In Troy: Myth and Reality, a new show at the British Museum, African American artist Romare Bearden reimagines, in a collage from the 1970s, Odysseus as travelling through African and Caribbean realms. In a photographic work from 2007, Eleanor Antin turns The Judgement of Paris, one of the events that led to the war, into a camp beauty contest in which Athena, goddess of war and winning, poses like Lara Croft, while Hera, protector of the family, vacantly pushes a vacuum cleaner in 1950s frock and pinny.
The show begins with a striking variety of objects, only two of them from the Dardanelles. Straight ahead is Cy Twombly’s immense 1962 drawing, The Vengeance of Achilles, a phallic, raging, scarlet-soaked triangle that makes me think of Christopher Logue’s Iliad-inspired poem, All Day Permanent Red. To the right is a trio of Anthony Caro sculptures from the 1990s called The Death of Hector, King Priam and The Skaian Gate. They are poised, monumental tableaux in wood, ceramic and steel that fix moments from the Trojan story in solemn stillness.
In front of the Twombly are three ancient objects. One is a black-figure amphora, or vessel, made in Attica in Greece by the potter and painter Exekias in around 530BC. It depicts the Greek fighter Achilles, high-helmeted and staring-eyed, thrusting a spear into the pale, undefended throat of the Amazon queen-warrior, Penthesilea. The other two are simple pots from Hisarlık, excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s. The pots are blackened, not by the burning walls of Troy, but by the burning walls of Berlin, where they were damaged by allied bombs in the second world war.
Troy is both fugitive and real, a fiction and a truth, a place of the deep past and an endless parade of future and possible cities, all magnificent and teeming, all broken and burned. None of the objects in the exhibition can be ascribed to a real Trojan war, because Homer’s Iliad is not a historical document – though it may be, on some level, a scrambled, dreamlike, poetic memory of raids or sieges, of conflicts between Greeks and Trojans that took place in the previous millennium.
We are all Trojans. For centuries, Homer’s Iliad was lost to western Europe. In the medieval era, until Petrarch and the seeds of the Renaissance, it was Latin that was read. So it was Roman stories of Troy that circulated: most importantly, The Aeneid. This poem, which Virgil was working on at the time of his death in 19BC, is a kind of sequel to The Iliad and The Odyssey, and a Roman rival to them. It tells the tale of Aeneas, a Trojan prince whose destiny is to escape the defeat of Troy, to leave the flames, rape and death behind – and find Italy, where he will establish a new dynasty that will end up founding Rome, the second Troy. In medieval Europe, the idea of one’s nation having been established by Trojan exiles, a la Rome, was irresistible. Every nation had to have a Trojan founder.
Britain’s is Brutus – the clue is in the name – who is the supposed great-grandson of Aeneas. Unmentioned in any antique source, he pops up in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century The History of the Kings of Britain (more myth than history). When Brutus arrives, he changes the name of Albion to reflect his own. The city he founds is Troynovant, or the new Troy, which later becomes London. “For noble Britons sprong from Troians bold,” wrote Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene. “And Troynount was built of old Troyes ashes bold.” In one genealogy, the Lyte Pedigree of 1605, James I’s ancestry was traced directly back to Brutus.