CULTURE

Oh, you mean that Homer!

BASEL, Switzerland – No, it does not symbolize the dreaded computer virus. Mounted outside the Basel Museum of Antiquities, the 30-foot-high (9.1-meter-high) wooden structure suggests what the mythical Trojan Horse may have looked like. It draws attention to a unique show on Homer, the Greek poet whose monumental epics have had an impact on Western culture for more than 2,500 years. The proverbial «horse» makes only a short episode in Homer’s powerful narrative that has influenced art from Greek vases painted in 600 BC to American abstract expressionism. Literature, too, has been stimulated by Homer’s works for more than two millennia. Proof is provided by 230 exhibits on view in the show titled «Homer, the Myth of Troy in Poetry and Art.» Lenders include more than 50 European and American museums. Its artistic director, Professor Joachim Latacz, a leading international authority on ancient Greece, hopes that the show will reawaken general interest in the roots of Western civilization. Latacz deplores what he calls the «growing estrangement» between antiquity and the general public in recent decades. He cites in the show’s catalog a poll in a German town in which 15 percent of high school students, when asked what they know about Homer, identified him as the character in the popular TV series «The Simpsons.» On view are magnificent Greek and Roman amphorae and vases depicting dramatic scenes of Homer’s two epics. In his «Iliad,» containing some 16,000 verses, he describes a short phase of a 10-year Trojan war said to have ended with a Greek victory in the 13th century BC. In a 12,000-word sequel, «The Odyssey,» Homer tells of a dangerous 10-year journey home of the Greek leader Odysseus to his kingdom on the island of Ithaca. Odysseus is credited with having cunningly smuggled his soldiers inside the huge hollow wooden horse into the besieged citadel of Troy to destroy it. Coins, statuettes, fragments of text excerpts on Egyptian papyrus and other artifacts on view also stress the dominant effect of Homer’s epics on Western culture since antiquity. The paintings on display make up only a small fraction of the vast imagery influenced by the ancient poetry. They range from copies of Roman frescoes to canvases by German pop artist Sigmar Polke and by Cy Twombly, a key figure in American abstract expressionism. The catalog lists many others from Rembrandt to Picasso. In a special room, visitors can see a 2006 video installation by American filmmaker Peter Rose, titled «Odysseus on Ithaca.» The 2004 movie «Troy,» starring Brad Pitt and Peter O’Toole, is loosely based on Homer’s epics. Writers in ancient Greece as well as Dante, Shakespeare and James Joyce are among the countless authors who drew inspiration from the poetry, as did classical and modern composers. And even a 1954 American musical, «The Golden Apple,» is related to the «Iliad» and «Odyssey.» In a brief amusing passage, the catalog portrays a fictitious American family to demonstrate Homer’s influence on commerce in daily life. The father has problems with his computer because of a Trojan virus. The mother wonders whether she should buy Helen of Troy personal hygiene products at the supermarket. And the family looks ahead to the summer holiday in which they will use their Honda SUV named Odyssey. A marble head of Homer, a Roman copy of the Greek original of around 460 BC, makes the cover of the exhibition catalog. It shows a bearded old man whose eyes are closed. There is a tradition that Homer was blind. In fact, little is known about the poet said to have lived in the eighth century BC. Excavations going on since the 19th century have not definitely located ruins of the Trojan citadel, which according to Homer was destroyed by the victorious Greeks. However, Latacz says scholars agree that Troy was situated on the southern entry of the Dardanelles in what is now Turkey. For Latacz, there is definite evidence that Homer was born in Smyrna, now the important Turkish port of Izmir, and worked on the Greek island of Chios, just off the western coast of Turkey. Latacz joins other experts in flatly rejecting a thesis just established by an Austrian author, Raoul Schrott, in a book termed «sensational» on its cover. Schrott claims he has found proof that Troy was actually a fortress in the ancient kingdom of Assyria, now in Turkish Anatolia. For Schrott, Homer was a scribe at the court whose ambition to write stems from the loss of his manhood as all men working for the Assyrian king had to be castrated. For Latacz, the book presents «sheer fantasy.» But he is unlikely to regret its publication last month because it increased media attention for the Basel show running through August 17.