This is the face that launched a thousand ships. Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, was so beautiful that Paris, prince of Troy, just couldn’t resist abducting her. The enraged kingdoms of Greece united to attack Troy and reverse this outrage, leading to a terrible war – the theme of Homer’s Iliad. In the end, Troy was infiltrated via the trick of a wooden horse, its people were butchered and it was burned to the ground.
Thousands of years later – though the story of Troy is of course the stuff of myth, built on shards of oral memory – the great Venetian artist Antonio Canova tries to imagine a face so perfect that a city burned for it. His marble has the softness of skin, the smoothness of glass, the precision of a hallucination. From her long straight nose to her unseeing eyes, Helen is the exquisite and supreme expression of 18th-century neo-classicism. In an age that sought to recover the austere grandeur of ancient Greek art, it is as if Canova has dreamed Helen into life. There is something to this haunting work of the fable of Pygmalion, the sculptor who in legend prayed for his statue of a beautiful woman to come to life. Canova, too, seems to will his ideal into the world of flesh. There is another version of this sculpture in Venice, and it moved Byron to poetry. Cliche has it that classicism is cold, but Canova’s Helen hums with passionate obsession. (x)