Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo - The Building of the Trojan Horse

by Alexandra Tuschka


Two impressive oil sketches that hang together in the National Gallery in London focus on the story of the Trojan Horse. It is the decisive moment in the Greeks' war against Troy. Even after years of a tenacious siege of Troy by the Greeks, they have been unable to breach the city walls. Then Odysseus has a cunning idea. He wants to see to it that a large horse gets into the city, in which they will house soldiers.

The painting by the Italian Tiepolo shows the work on the huge horse. Here it is not obviously made of wood, as in the source text, but rather modelled on a horse made of flesh and blood, albeit in monochrome paint. We see the horse's rear better than its front, the sunlight from the right taking care of that. The mane, the tail and the shiny skin make it appear quite agitated. The hecticness and vehemence expressed by the men also shows their enthusiasm for the new idea, but also its urgency. Work is being done simultaneously in all places, a wild jumble of ladders, tools and wooden stakes makes the right-hand background of the picture appear somewhat chaotic. The physical work finds its expression in the strong men who are striking out. On the far right, the armed soldiers are already waiting to enter. Opposite them on the left we see two older men talking about the result. These are probably the heads of the action: the refined Odysseus and the Greek king Agamemnon. But possibly Epeius, the builder of the horse, could also be meant. In the background, a stone wall with turrets enters the picture, as well as some spectators.

How is the horse supposed to get to Troy? The city walls were almost insurmountable. The Greeks have planned for this too: they withdraw their fleet and their men, and suggest to the Trojan king Priam that they have given up the war. They leave the big horse on the beach without a master. Otherwise there is not a Greek to be seen for miles around. Priam discusses the situation with his men. Cassandra, the seer, warns them to set fire to it immediately, as it is a trap. Others are more quickly blinded. Sinon, a companion of Odysseus, arrives in the city covered in blood, pretends to be on the wrong side and misrepresents the events, and is finally able to convince the king with his spectacle. Now the horse is interpreted as a symbol of triumph, which is also supposed to bring luck and divine support within the city walls.


Therefore, the horse's entry is also accompanied by great jubilation, as we can see in Tiepolo's second work. In this one, many Trojans are on their feet and men and women are actively helping, a small boy cannot quite reach the rope yet. On the city walls the people are cheering. The Latin inscription on the side of the horse reads: PALADI VOTUM" (A Sacrifice to Pallas). Here reference is made to Athena, whose support as goddess of war seemed indispensable. Unfortunately, as we know, things turned out differently. The prophecy of the seeress Cassandra was to come true and the soldiers inside the horse would be able to overthrow Troy. The seeress, by the way, is arrested in the background here. You just don't want to hear her annoying warnings in a situation like this. The view of Troy is closely modelled on the ancient buildings in Rome, and the gigantic battlements are reminiscent of ancient fortifications.

In this painting, too, we see the horse from behind. Its front, set in dark, the raised hoof and the somewhat unstable-looking twist to the right, also give the viewer a sense of a slightly threatening situation. The long path that stretches deep into the picture also contributes to this.


Both oil sketches served as models for monumental elaborations. These were elaborated in 1773/4. As preliminary sketches, the two works give a rather hasty impression, but one that fits the subject well. The colours are muted, some strong colour accents, such as the woman in the red dress, stand out all the more clearly. Compared to the sketch, you can see that some small adjustments have been made. The entire scene has been painted thinly, which adds to the spontaneity of the technique. The "Building of the Trojan Horse" is now in Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. The location of the other work is unknown. There also exists a third sketch showing the Greeks dismounting from their horse and conquering the city. This is not accessible and is thought to be in a private collection in Paris.


Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo - The Building of the Trojan Horse

Oil on canvas, c. 1760, 38.8 x 66.7 cm, National Gallery, London


Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo - The Entry of the Trojan Horse

Oil on canvas, c. 1760, 38.8 x 66.7 cm, National Gallery, London


Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo - The Building of the Trojan Horse

Oil on canvas, c. 1773/4, 224.2 x 391.2 cm, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut