This week I have nothing to say, and no time in which to say it. This particular week has been been marked on my calendar for months as ‘THE BAD WEEK’; and I’m inclined to think that I may have underestimated its negative force. Fuelled by coffee, whisky and leftover pizza, I am attempting to get through mind-boggling amounts of work in an implausible time scale, and have seriously considered setting an out-of-office auto-reply which says ‘Good news only; problems and complaints will automatically be diverted to the Trash’.
Fortunately other people are around to fill in the gap; so I’ll hand you over to OU graduate Pam Herbert, and to superstar tutor Gina May. Pam has kindly sent me her review of the British Museum Troy exhibition; and Gina has spaces on some new online courses (but book soon, because her courses do fill up fast!).
Troy at The British Museum
I was interested to see that one of the recent links from around the Classics Internet was to Art UK’s webpage “The Tale of Troy in Art”. This article covers many of the artworks that form part of the British Museum exhibition “Troy: Myth and Reality”, which is open until March 8th, although some of the works in the Art UK article are not part of the exhibition, notably Sandys’ depiction of Helen of Troy looking like a sulky teenager, nor his Cassandra, showing what good teeth the Victorians apparently had, nor Collier’s terrifying bare-breasted Clytemnestra (although another of his mad Clytemnestra pictures is on show) – shame, I would have liked to have seen those other paintings!
Anyway, as I have recently been to London with the express intention of going to the British Museum, I thought you might like to hear some of my ramblings about the exhibition as a whole.
The exhibition is pretty extensive, so if you are planning a visit, do make sure that you have enough time before you have to hot-foot it back to the railway station. It starts with a striking modern installation by Anthony Caro, using stone, wood and some steel to represent the Trojan battlefield, which I found strangely moving and effective in conjuring up an image of ruin and desolation, and sets the scene for what is to come.
The first main section of the exhibition is entitled “Storytellers”, and obviously focuses on Homer, and how his work was transmitted. We see the bust that supposedly shows Homer, from The BM’s own collection.
However we also see, excitingly, a first century AD manuscript of the Odyssey which has been annotated by ancient scholars. It’s wonderful to think that so long ago, learned people were poring over the text and discussing it, in much the same way that we still do today. Virgil gets a section in the exhibition too, with lots of images of my favourite, Aeneas (I wrote an essay on Aeneas and his classical reception when I was an OU student on the first presentation of A330: Myth in the Greek and Roman worlds).
The exhibition displays many lovely vases, again mainly from the BM’s collection showing scenes from the Trojan narrative, some of which will be familiar to OU students, but it’s great that some of the vases and other objects are on loan from other institutions, such as the little cup (skyphos) of Nestor, from the Museo Archeologico di Pithecusae, which attests to ordinary ancient Greeks’ knowledge of epic poetry that describes Nestor. It is inscribed with lines in verse that translate as “I am the cup of Nestor, good to drink from; whoever drinks from this cup, immediately desire of fair-garlanded Aphrodite will strike him.”
I also enjoyed the quotations from the ancient texts and from later writers, which are judiciously scattered around the walls, particularly where one section of the exhibition blends into another. The exhibition also has borrowed a skyphos from the Louvre, showing Agamemnon leading Briseis away from Achilles. I had certainly never seen this before, which brings us to the second section of the exhibition.
The focus now concentrates more closely on the myth of the Trojan War beginning with the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (Achilles’ parents), with the Sophilos wine mixing bowl (dinos) with a very helpful illuminated interpretive display that encircles the dinos and explains who all the characters at the wedding are. It’s an impressive object, standing at just over 70cm tall and with a bowl more than 30cm diameter. You don’t really get the scale from the photograph.
The role of women, human and divine, is a recurrent thread throughout the exhibition, even though the male heroes are obviously the main event, with Achilles’ anger and its consequences meriting a large section. Nevertheless, attentive visitors to the museum will come away with an understanding of Helen and Andromache, as well as some familiarity with Iphigenia, Polyxena, Clytemnestra and Creusa among others, as well as the capricious and unreliable goddesses.
It isn’t all vases though, there are lots of coins, sarcophagi (I can’t imagine how those were transported into the exhibition space – very carefully, I should imagine), sculptures and small artefacts as well as later Roman frescoes that all give a flavour of the importance of the epic cycle in the ancient world. I particularly liked the little bronze of Odysseus clinging to the underside of a ram in order to escape Polyphemus’ cave.
Odysseus, like Achilles, has his own section of the exhibition, and here there are some very famous images, such as the jar showing Odysseus sailing past the Sirens.
I’m sure that those Sirens sounded much better than the reverse Sirens, that featured in the Eidolon Christmas gift guide, as these strange stickers – thank you for the link to that image, Cora Beth. I think it’s going to stay with me for quite a long time…. and sadly it doesn’t appear in the exhibition, as an example of irreverent classical reception!
Before moving on to the next section of the exhibition, there are a couple of observations I’d like to share with you. The first is that most of the captions to the exhibits have been placed somewhere between ankle and knee level, and often printed in white on dark grey. The objects themselves are mainly in cases illuminated by strong LED spotlights, with the rest of the rooms having subdued lighting to protect the artworks on display. The caption positioning means that as soon as someone stands behind you, the words are plunged into shadow, and as I went to the museum on a very busy day between Christmas and New Year, it was actually quite difficult to get into a position where the labels were visible, especially since the exhibits are packed in with around a hundred different artefacts in these two first sections. This is a great shame, so if you don’t have sharp elbows, it may be worth picking up one of the large print guide books intended for visually impaired visitors if there are enough copies at the entrance, (also downloadable here – https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/troy-myth-and-reality#access).
My other comment is that although the Trojan horse is mentioned, it isn’t given the prominence that you’d expect, even though this must be one of the best known stories from the Trojan War. It’s a shame that the BM wasn’t able to secure a loan of the Mykonos pithoi, which is illustrated in the exhibition catalogue. Perhaps the little museum in Mykonos town wasn’t willing to lend its stand-out piece, or perhaps this large and impressive vessel is too fragile to move. Here are my pictures of it, taken last year when we just went for some autumn sunshine, but ended up having a wonderful time, visiting quiet beaches, the ancient site on the island of Delos, and if you are old enough to remember it, the restaurant at the “Shirley Valentine” beach.
Moving into the third part of the exhibition area, space is a little less cramped, and the archaeological investigations conducted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are considered. The geography of the Troad is illustrated with antiquarian maps, and finds from the area near the village of Bounarbashi, where Troy was initially thought to have been situated. This area continued to be considered as Troy’s location until a mound at Hissarlik was mapped in 1793, and there followed a heated debate about the merits of each site among the scholars, engineers and travellers of the day. When I think about the excavation of Troy, my first though is of Heinrich Schliemann, so I was very interested to read the background story to his discoveries and how the lesser-known antiquarian Frank Calvert’s work in the region in 1863 paved the way for him. I was absolutely astonished by the depth of the trench Schliemann excavated, and which is still visible today. This photo is used as a backdrop to a display of Schliemann’s discoveries, and the darkness in the gallery gives an impression of being in a deep trench.
Schliemann’s methods were certainly crude by today’s archaeological standards, and he missed or inadvertently damaged much of the evidence in his haste to reach the lowest levels and therefore earliest city of Troy. However, excavations have continued since his discoveries and there is now a pretty good understanding of the structure of the city, and the phases that it went through with building and re-building. At this point, the exhibition considers the central question of whether the Trojan War was myth or reality. Ultimately though the curators cannot directly relate the archaeology to the poetry, they assert that written records in Akkadian and Hittite found in 1906 in Anatolia, provide evidence for battles involving Hittite allies known as Dardani (i.e. Trojans). The detailed arguments are examined in the exhibition catalogue, and appear to vindicate Schliemann’s belief that Homer composed the Iliad based on historical facts passed down from generation to generation.
The final section of the exhibition is called “Troy: Enduring stories”, and presents us with an array of manuscripts showing how the epics were translated and preserved through the medieval and renaissance periods, and more modern artworks, quite heavily represented by the Victorian imagination. I think that the Guardian’s review was very unfair in describing this part of the exhibition as “lugubrious and space-wasting” and “an array of mediocrity”.
There is much to enjoy in this part of the exhibition, and I loved the small, delicate Wedgwood plaque showing King Priam begging Achilles for the corpse of Hector.
I also enjoyed the little model theatre used for designing the stage set in 1932 for an English language version of the comic opera La Belle Hélène. It’s difficult to imagine a comedy based on the Trojan War, but apparently this work is an enduring favourite with those who appreciate opera.
In contrast, there is a video installation showing a performance of Queens of Syria, a 2014 play based on Euripides’ The Trojan Women, and performed by Syrian women refugees, interweaving their own experiences with elements of the ancient play.
Sadly I haven’t been able to find a link to a performance of this work, but there is a trailer here:
and some more information here:
and here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-36711948.
Inevitably, mainstream films also get a mention, including Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy starring Brad Pitt. We can also see Japanese manga versions of the story, before a final look back at the Journeys theme that is associated with Odysseus and Aeneas. Here we get to see some of the more febrile imaginings of some British artists – here we have the sirens, who have now mutated into mermaids:
Or a more modern version of the same story:
The penultimate part of the exhibition returns to Achilles, with sculpture inspired by his childhood – not a recommended way of handling infants, but if you need to make your kiddie invincible then needs must…. The head of the infant Achilles was actually modelled on the baby daughter of the wealthy original owners of the work, Thomas and Jane Johnes, Thetis being modelled on Jane herself, and it is seen as a reflection of their desire to protect their child from harm (Exhibition Catalogue page 236-237).
And finally we can view the sculpture of Achilles’ death, which is the image on the cover of the exhibition catalogue:
The very last part of the exhibition has a final roundup of women associated with the story, including John Collier’s terrifying Clytemnestra, with her blood-smeared axe, which brings us back full circle to the Art UK website that I mentioned at the start of my ramblings.
This image is interesting in that Clytemnestra’s coronet is based on Schliemann’s finds known as Priam’s Treasure. These have been replicated by jewellers for museum display and as film props. Sadly the replicas on display at this exhibition are somewhat tarnished, the originals having been spirited away to Russia at the end of the Second World War. As a final example of how Schliemann’s standards were unlike modern practices, here is that famous image of his wife Sophia wearing the originals. How amazing!
Overall, I found that it was well worth making the trip to London to see this exhibition, despite the few drawbacks of presentation and the sheer volume of artworks on display making it seem quite overwhelming. I would recommend a visit, or at least getting hold of a copy of the exhibition catalogue, because the curators have drawn together a varied mixture of works, many of which were new to me (particularly the modern art works, less so the classical and neo-classical works).
The only issue with this exhibition that remains to be addressed is the fact that it has been sponsored by BP. This has aroused controversy due to the climate crisis, and recent demonstrations by groups like Extinction Rebellion. It has been announced very recently that the British Museum will no longer work with BP as a sponsor for future exhibitions, cutting short a five-year agreement. BP has already been dropped as a sponsor by other cultural institutions, and it will be interesting to see which businesses and philanthropic foundations will pick up future sponsorship deals. You can read more about calls for disengagement of cultural organisations from fossil fuel businesses here: https://cultureunstained.org/.
[Editor’s note: as I was uploading this I saw something about the protestors and a Trojan Horse. Impressive creativity!]
I hope you have found this whirlwind tour of “Troy: Myth and Reality” interesting, and certainly despite its corporate sponsors, I do feel that it’s a terrific mixture of artworks from such a variety of perspectives that it really made me think again about how classical receptions are still so relevant to us today.
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This week’s links from around the internet
Coins in Derbyshire – Derby Telegraph
Shock of the Nude review – The Telegraph
Ancient footwear exhibition – Phys.org
Reality in Medea and Macbeth – The New Yorker
Curse tablets in Athens – Haaretz
Destroying Roman ruins in Milton Keynes – MK Citizen
Campaign to save a Roman villa – BBC News
Classical Reception events in Feb – CRSN
Comment and opinion
Aristotle on the soul – Le Temps Revient
Making The Shock of the Nude – A Don’s Life
Generating vocabulary lists – Society for Classical Studies
Ancient warfare and reenactments – ICS
Gods in colour – DW.com
Propertius – The Wrong Monkey
Weaponised imperialism – Sphinx
The formation of the New Testament – The British Academy Blog
Podcasts, video and other media
Was Caligula mad? – A.D. History podcast