My Museum Favourite: The Siege of Troy

In this week’s Museum Favourite, Anna Judson ventures outside the Faculty to see a pair of paintings in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

In the Fitzwilliam’s medieval-Renaissance Italian art gallery you can find these two paintings depicting episodes from the Siege of Troy: the Death of Hector and the Wooden Horse.

The Death of Hector (Fitzwilliam Museum M.44)
The Death of Hector (Fitzwilliam Museum M.44)
The Wooden Horse (Fitzwilliam Museum M.45)
The Wooden Horse (Fitzwilliam Museum M.45)

Painted by a Florentine artist, Biagio d’Antonio, in the late 15th century, these paintings are my Museum Favourite(s) not just because they’re inspired by Classical mythology, but mainly because the more time you spend looking at them, the more details there are to find and appreciate. For a start, some of those Italian-style buildings that make up the city of Troy aren’t just generic buildings, but actual monuments from various different Italian cities: the Leaning Tower of Pisa, for instance, or Trajan’s Column:

Leaning Tower of Pisa
Leaning Tower of Pisa
Trajan's Column
Trajan’s Column

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s also a cathedral that looks very like the Florentine Duomo, though with a different-coloured roof:

Florence Duomo

Florence Duomo
Florence Duomo

This makes for a fun game of spot-the-civic-landmark, but in a period when the Italian city-states were more or less constantly fighting with each other and/or being fought over by the rest of Europe, I wonder if it could also have a deeper significance: if Troy, the archetypal beseiged/destroyed city, is made up of all these different Italian cities, then any or all of those cities could potentially become Troy.

Looking at the scenes taking place in front of the city, you can see that some of the figures have their names painted on their clothes or their horse’s trappings, in a way that always makes me think of carousel horses. This isn’t just a helpful device for a (potentially) ignorant viewer, but functions as a signal of how the painting is to be ‘read’: which is, more or less, as a comic strip. Because here are Achilles and Hector, twice, showing both the fight and its aftermath:

Achilles and Hector 1
Achilles and Hector 1
Achilles and Hector 2
Achilles and Hector 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wooden Horse panel similarly depicts not just the Trojans bringing in the horse, but also the Greek army’s attack, and the kindling of the fire that will burn the city – but here the events are shown not sequentially but simultaneously, interwoven with each other, so that cause and effect, the Trojans’ celebration and destruction, become inseparable.

The wooden horse/the destruction of Troy
The wooden horse/the destruction of Troy

There’s one more detail in the first painting that’s rather unexpected, and that’s the appearance of Thersites:

Thersites
Thersites

He’s obviously supposed to be noticed – he’s right at the front, and his black horse and light-coloured clothing make him stand out, and his name is painted on the horse’s bridle. But he’s also the only ‘minor’ character to be named in either painting: not necessarily what would be expected for the ‘ugliest man who came to Troy’, who appears in Iliad 2 to abuse Agamemnon and suggest that the whole army should give up and go home, before being beaten into silence by Odysseus and never heard from again in the poem. So why is Thersites here? I think perhaps he’s a reminder specifically of the Homeric account of the war (which ends, after all, with the events of this painting) – and therefore also of the immense cost of the Greek successes depicted in these two paintings.

Mainly, though, I have to say that I love these two paintings (and keep going back to visit them) just because they’re a huge amount of fun to look at. You can look at this painting and think deep thoughts about war and the Iliad if you want – or you can just enjoy picking out the famous buildings in Troy, hunting out the characters’ names and following the story through the panels. To me, it’s a very playful – but also very effective – way of using and engaging with Classical mythology and literature, and that’s why, despite being technically at least a thousand years too late, these paintings are my Classical Museum Favourites.

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Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

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