Laocoon and His Sonslaura95f2021-02-23T10:59:34+00:00
laocoon and his sons
Artists: Hagesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus Material:Greek Parian white marble Date:40-20 BC Dimensions: 2 m in height Period:Hellenistic Period, Ancient Greece Discovery: 1506, in Rome Current Location:Vatican Museum, Vatican City Theme:Laocoon Subject:Greek mythology
The Laocoon is an iconic work of the Hellenisc period, from Ancient Greek art. This sculptural group greatly marked the first Classical revival, known as the Renaissance. and is generally attributed to the Rhodes sculptors, Hagesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus. It baffled spectators, from the first moment it was found in 1506, in Rome. Today, it is considered one of the fundamental examples of all classical art, and it is also seen as a proof of the cultural transmissions between Greece and Rome.
Also called the Laocoön Group, the sculpture Laocoon and His Sons, is a large and complex multi-figured sculptural composition, and an iconic work of the Hellenisc period in Ancient Greek art that greatly marked the first Classical revival, known as the Renaissance. It depicts a scene of intense emotional drama; the moment in the iconic myth of Laocoon who had acted justly, only to be punished by the wrath of the gods, being killed along with two sons, by giant serpents. There is great uncertainty as to the date of the statue. However, general estimations place it at around 40-20 BCE, probably close in time to the Aeneid, written by Virgil (70-19 BC) around 29-19 BCE. Despite this belief, various dates have been suggested, ranging from about 200 BC to the 70s AD. There is also a general consensus that it was executed in early Imperial Rome and that it was probably commissioned for the home of a prominent Roman, possibly of the Imperial family. With a height of 208 cm, the figures are close to life-size. Although much doubt remains about dates, origin, commission, and creator, Pliny the Elder’s (23/24-79 AD) description (which dates the 70s CE), who claimed to have seen the work in the palace of Emperor Titus (9-79 AD), attributes it to three Greek sculptors from the island of Rhodes – which have come to be known as the Rhodes sculptors -, Hagesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus. Even so, their names are not signed and there is no way of knowing for certain who created this work.
Carved in Greek Parianwhite marble made out of various pieces, the exquisite execution has baffled spectators, from the first moment it was found. Excavated in Rome in 1506, on the Esquiline Hill (or on the Oppian Hill) in Rome, it was instantly identified as the Laocoon described by Pliny the Elder, a masterpiece created by the three sculptors of Rhodes. It was subsequently immediately bought by Pope Julius II (1443-1513), pope between 1503 and 1513), being placed on public display in the Vatican as the centre figure of the Statues Courtyard (Cortile delle Statue), where it still remains. Received with great acclaim at the time, the sculpture had an immense influence on the Renaissance as a movement and on numerous artists, who all considered it to be a new archetype and standard for art. In fact, Pliny had already described the Laocoon as the foremost example of all the arts: “a work superior to any in painting or in bronze”, as he claimed. It is speculated that it is a reproduction of an earlier work made in the early Imperial period, probably in bronze.
The Greek myth of Laocoon, related to the Trojan War, has numerous versions, all of which with slightly different variations and meanings. The myth is believed to have been first a tragedy written by Sophocles (c. 497-406 BC). The biggest narration of the story is found by the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC), in Aeneid (29–19 BCE), who narrates the Trojan war in detail until the foundation of Rome. The story speaks of the death of the Trojan priest of Apollo, named Laocoon, and his two sons (Antiphantes and Thymbraeus) as punishment from the gods, for having tried to warn the city of Troy about the colossal Trojan Horse sent by the Greeks. As the story adds, Laocoon by warning the Trojans, claiming “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” (an expression still used today), was defying divine destiny (as the gods were favouring the Greeks), and therefore deserved to be punished. Athena and Poseidon both sent giant serpents to kill him and his sons along with him, for trying to defend him. Another detailed depiction of this same story is found by Quintus Smyrnaeus in Posthomerica, according to which Laocoon begged the Trojans to set fire to the horse, so that the trap would be revealed. Athena, angry at the scene, blinded him, but as he continued trying to convince the Trojans, she kept going with her punishment by sending two giant serpents to strange him and his two sons. The story has various interpretations, however, one fundamental idea is that Laocoon’s death symbolizes the death of the city he was so bravely trying to protect. In another version by Sophocles, Laocoon was a priest of Apollo who should have been celibate but had chosen to marry. As punishment for defying the rules, snakes were sent to kill his two sons, leaving him alive to suffer the grief. In both cases the morals of the story, as in most of the Greek myths, is confusing and open to various interpretations.
Death of the Laocoon (c. 400 CE), in Folio 18v of the Vatican Vergil
Imaginary Gallery with Sights from Classical Rome (1757) by Giovanni Paolo Panini
The Finding of the Laocoon (1773) by Hubert Robert
In 1506, a Roman landowner (Felice de Fredis) was searching his new vineyard on the Oppian Hill, at a location called “Le Capocce,” a vineyard on the southern part of the Esquiline, only to find the sculpture. The region was known to be packed with archaeological history. When it was found, it was incomplete of arms and hands (missing the right arm of the main figure and that of his younger son), as portrayed in some of the early reproductions of the sculpture. Almost immediately, it was noticed that (contrary to Pliny”s description) it was not carved from a single block of marble, however, it was generally accepted that it was in fact the work referred by Pliny (23/24-79 AD). News of the new discovery spread fast, and Pope Julius II (1443-1513) sent his architect Giuliano da Sangallo (1443-1416) to investigate it. A letter by the architect’s son recalls the events, explaining that Michelangelo (1475-1564)also attended the excavation, “my father said: ‘That is the Laocoon, of which Pliny makes mention.’ Then they widened the opening to pull the sculpture out. On seeing it, we turned to drawing it, all the while discoursing on ancient things!” At the time, Michelangelo had just completed David (1504) in Florence, and had been invited to Rome by Julius II to undertake the Pope’s tomb. The Pope, satisfied with the report from the architect, bought it and placed it on public display at the Vatican. Laocoon inaugurated the Vatican Museum’s Belvedere display of antique sculptures, aimed at facilitating the study of classical canons. In 1506–1508, there is a record of the first of many illustrations of the sculpture drawn by Giovanni Antonio da Brescia (1460-1523).
Engraving of the Laocoon (c. 1506-1520) by Giovanni Antonio da Brescia
When the sculpture arrived at the Vatican, papal architect Donato Bramante (1444-1514) launched a prize competition, suggesting that the students made a wax model of the work, imagining its completed version, of which the best would be made into bronze. Raphael (1483-1520), who was asked to be judge, chose the work of Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570), which was then cast into bronze in 1510 for Cardinal Domenico Grimani (1461-1523); this work is now lost, but other copies exist. However, most copies continued to imagine and incorporate its completion from here onwards. In 1520, the Medici Pope Leo X (1475-1521) commissioned a copy of the Laocoon to the Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli (1488-1560), to be sent as a gift to King François I of France (1494-1547). In spite of that, when it was completed in 1525, after the death of Leo X and after Giulio de’ Medici (1478-1534) was elected pope (Pope Clement VII), the sculpture was deemed too good, and was sent to de Medici Palace in Florence instead. Today, the copy stands among others in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence. The Louvre Museum also possesses a bronze casting copy of the original (made for the French king mentioned earlier), a copy that was produced under Francesco Primaticcio’s (1504-1570) supervision.
Laocoon (c. 1510-1525) by Jacopo Sansovino (CC BY 3.0, by Sailko)
Laocoon (1520-1525) by Baccio Bandinelli, Uffizi (CC BY-SA 4.0, by Bchamberlain95)
In the seventeenth century, Winckelmann (1717-1778) wrote that Bernini (1598-1680) was thought to have reworked the missing limbs. Speculations arose about Michelangelo’s interventions in 1540’s, believing that he had refused to design the arm out of reverence for the original. The restoration was done by Michelangelo’s pupil, Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli (1507-1563), a few years after that. Montorsoli added a missing arm, which was a restoration choice that gave rise to much debate. With the arm raised, it was this version of the work that became widespread throughout the next centuries. In July 1798, the sculpture was taken to Paris and placed in the Musée Central des Arts for its opening in December 1800, returning to the Vatican in 1816, eighteen years later, where it still remains. It was only in the mid twentieth century that a predilection for the original occured; as the forearm that had been found in a Roman stonemason’s shop in 1905, started to be accepted as the original missing piece (identified by Ludwig Pollak (1868-1943), Director of Rome’s Museo Barracco di Scultura Antica). Changing the extension of the arm, the original and present deep bend of the elbow was re-adjusted to the sculpture in 1959. It is believed this has been Michelangelo’s original idea.
Laocoon’s extended arm, as it was from c. 1540 to 1957
Laocoon arm after refixing it 2010 (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Gentil Hibou)
Widely considered one of the most famous and notorious sculptures of the ancient world, it is considered one the finest examples of Hellenistic sculpture, and one of the fundamental examples of all classical art.Already at the time of its discovery, the Laocoon sculpture was instantly universally praised and studied. Prior to that, in ancient Rome, Pliny (23/24-79 AD) already praised it as “a work to be preferred to all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced”, elevating it to the status of a very unique masterpiece, and one of the most exquisite works of art ever created, in both painting and sculpture. Its importance and legacy is vast and global, signifying the culmination of classical aesthetics and the development of human form. The mythological drama and pathos is a universal story about the complex fate of humankind, which has a great significance across time. In many ways the Laocoon also symbolizes the cultural transmissions between Greece and Rome. Although the claim of the greatest of all artworks is currently debated, the significance of the work for humanity is not.
The work is classified asHellenistic “Pergamene baroque”, the same style as the Pergamon Altar (c. 180–160 BC). The Hellenistic aesthetic is characterized by the preference for the momentary, of which this work is a fundamental example, capturing one single moment in time, of profound ache and suffering. Another fundamental aspect to Hellenistic Art is the rejection of the classical “idealism”, preferring the particular over the universal, which was a greatly innovative approach in sculpture, and which can clearly be seen in the work of the Dying Gaul (230-220 BC) by Epigonus of Pergamon – a marble sculpture commissioned by Attalus I of Pergamon, a work now lost (although a copy still exists, currently at Capitoline Museums in Rome). During this phase in ancient sculpture, the figures gained individual expression, a lot of them showing emotions of suffering and sorrow, and other depictions of human state like sleep or old age, different from the idealised world of its predecessor, the classical period. Depictions of human form went further than the mere anatomical standpoint, and were more naturalistic, as it started to include deep emotion and specific personal characteristics, such as scars and wrinkles (in the case of portraiture, something borrowed from the Romans). The most common subjects during this period were men, women, children, animals and domestic scenes as well. Examples include: the Old Drunkard (3rd century BC), the Sleeping Hermaphroditus (2nd century BC), The Hellenistic period is also called the second classicism, repeating some of the same characteristics, but adding a whole different level of three-dimensionality to the sculpture. The contorted and twisting figures that make this style, makes the works interesting from all viewpoints, from all sides, something that can be seen in the Venus de Milo (130-100 BC). Another innovation of this period is the multi-figure group sculptures, including battle scenes reliefs, of which the Laocoon and the Pergamon Altar are great examples.
Left Side of the Pergamon Altar (c. 180–160 BC), Pergamon Museum, Berlin (CC BY-SA 4.0, by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)
Detail of a copy of the Dying Gaul (230-220 BC) by Epigonus of Pergamon (CC BY-SA 4.0, by Rabax63)
The sculpture uses a complex composition created from various diagonal lines, something that was very carefully structured and studied. Using one very strong predominant diagonal, it evokes movement, chaos, and complexity, as the diagonals in their totality symbolize violence, action and suffering, rather than the stability and calmness of the verticality and horizontality. Following these diagonals are the limbs and the winding coils of the serpents. In addition, the fact that the scale of the two sons is smaller than the scale of Laocoon, and the sculptural group assumes a pyramidal structure, with Laocoon at the center, adds to the impact of the overall sculpture, and enhances the primary role of the Laocoon in the myth.
Stone carving is an ancient method that has been around since the beginning of humankind. However, marble as the material of choice only happened in Ancient Classicism, firstly by the hands of the Greeks. Marble is a brittle and heavy stone, so sculptors used supports to attach the limbs to the main part of the piece, for example, which were not meant to be permanent as they were often taken off once the sculpture was complete. In the case of dynamic groups of free-standing figures, such as the Laocoon, extra elements were included in the composition to help give it more stability, like tree trunks, drapes or a plint itself. In this particular case, the Laocoon and the son on the left are supported mainly by a short plint, while the son on the left is supported by drape that falls from his shoulders all the way to the ground. This big mass is so wonderfully disguised by the illusion of the fluidity of a drape, that one does not even think about how it is used as support as well, bringing function to the aesthetic part. For the carving itself, the same tools are still used today, and a few of them are: the mason’s axe (which is used to shape out the excess of the block to give the piece its general form); the hammer or mallet (which are used to further shape the sculpture); and the flat chisels (which are used to carve the final details and finishes). Lastly the marble is polished using pumice, to convey its smooth and reflective finish.
The mythological drama and pathos is an archetype of the universal story of the complex fate of humankind. Destined to suffer despite the right conduct of his actions. The story imbued into the sculpture is highly emotionally charged, accentuated by the contorting bodies and the flowing intertwined serpents. The sculpture has been called “the prototypical icon of human agony”, greatly enhancing its emotional world of suffering and pain. Neither the sculpture nor the story have a redemption or reward, rather, the suffering merely leads to death. The contorted expressions of the faces, highly exaggerated and accentuated, evoke an even greater emotional drama. Struggling bodies, ache with pain and stain as the serpents squeeze the life of each of the figures, both by biting and constricting.
Detail of the Expression of Laocoon (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Wknight94)
As they are attacked by sea serpents, the scene depicts a dynamic struggle and battle for survival, between men and snakes, twisted in contorting lines and intertwining spirals. This evokes a deeper significance of man fighting against the fate sent to him by the gods. The emergence of the sculpture was also understood as a metaphor for the rebirth of classical training and learning during the Renaissance. Through its scale and size, it can be seen as an allegorical representation of life itself, as well.
The sculpture Laocoon has a very vast history of being used either as a direct influence, or as imitation, through the tradition of Academism as a learning tool. During the Renaissance, since the foundation of art academies, which were based in a mimetic understanding of the past, using specially drawing, the study of Laocoon proved to be fundamental, for its unique formal vocabularies and arrangement of forms. Laocoon became one of the leading examples used for imitation, as a founding visual canon of ideal forms from which students learnt. Laocoon circulated widely through the new Renaissance medium of printing, making it widely accessible. Other forms of reproduction and replication included plaster cast, bronze, wax sculpture, marble copies and even decorative arts. The first notorious sculptural copy was by the hands of Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) who made a large cast of it in 1510, and then it was copied in marble by Bandinelli (1488-1560) in 1525 (intended initially as a gift to King François I of France). Another important copy of the time was made under the direction of Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570), in bronze, which is currently at Chateau Fontainebleau. There are numerous other copies of the sculpture, including one in the Grand Palace of the Knights of St. John, in Rhodes. The sculpture served as a model in various modern art academies, across the whole world, for centuries. It appeared in miniature arts such as porcelain, or reductions in metals, in silverware, or in gemstones. It was defined as a canon of art.
Copy of the Laocoon, Grand Palace of the Knights of St. John, in Rhodes, Greece (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Go-2-nice-places)
Rondache with Laocoon and his sons (1560-1570)
The sculpture continued to greatly influence Italian artists well into the Baroque period. Raphael (1483-1520) is known to have used the face of Laocoon for Homer in his Parnassus (1511), in the Raphael Rooms. Michelangelo (1475-1564) is known to have had a profound encounter with the sculpture, being greatly awed by its massive presence and scale. He adopted from the work the bodily language of heroic suffering, or terribilità, which he greatly admired, into his male nude figures. It had such a strong impact that it echoed throughout the commissions that he was working on at the time. The Laocoon, as well as the Belvedere Torso (1st century BC), greatly defined his aesthetic. He had just been invited to Rome by Julius II to undertake the Pope’s tomb, followed by the Sistine ceiling. Specially in his slave figures (the Rebellious Slave and the Dying Slave, 1513-1515) created for the papal tomb, it is possible to see the clear influence of the sculpture, in pathos and significance. The contorting proportions and anatomy of the slaves, as well as the overall figures created from then on, echo the torsions of Laocoon’s musculature. Perpetuating the same sense of noble suffering, Michelangelo’s apprehension and incorporation of the works’ meaning, makes Laocoon one of the most significant works. Michelangelo’s fresco of The Brazen Serpent, on a corner of the Sistine Chapel, also involves figures struggling with snakes, and could also be seen to be a direct influence of the work. In addition, the pyramidal structure deeply influenced many different compositions in painting, such as works by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, who used this solid base to bring further strength to their works.
Detail of the Laocoon | Homer, detail of Parnassus (1511) by Raphael
Detail of the Laocoon (CC BY 3.0, by Sailko) | Dying Slave (1513–15) by Michelangelo (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Jörg Bittner Unna)
The sculpture was reproduced vastly in prints and became known all over Europe. Titian (1490-1576) was greatly influenced by a reproduction of the work, and this influence can be clearly seen in various of his figures. There is a woodcut of an original drawing which is a parody by Titian (a satire to Bandinelli’s copy). Over 15 copies of the work were made by Rubens (1577-1640) when he was in Rome, a great influence seen in various of his works. Later, in the 19th century, William Blake (1757-1827) also conducted studies of the work, using the classical anatomy for the definition of his anatomical vocabulary; Blake’s iconic Laocoon print dates c. 1820, and surrounds the figures with annotations in several languages. Despite the influence, Blake believed that imitation was destructive to the imagination. John Ruskin (819-1900) had a profound dislike for the work, believing the composition to be too naturalistic.
Death of Laocoon (c. 1510) by Marco Dente
Detail of Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-1523) by Titian
Caricature of the Laocoon (16th century) possibly by Niccolo Boldrini (after a painting by Titian)
Pliny the Elder describing the discovery of the Laocoon, in Latin: “Nec deinde multo plurimum fama est, quorundam claritati in operibus eximiis obstante numero artificum, quoniam nec unus occupat gloriam nec plures pariter nuncupari possunt, sicut in Laocoonte, qui est in Titi imperatoris domo, opus omnibus et picturae et statuariae artis praeferendum. ex uno lapide eum ac liberos draconumque mirabiles nexus de consilii sententia fecere summi artifices Hagesander et Polydorus et Athenodorus Rhodii” (ed. Carolus Mayhoff, Leipzig, Teubner 1897). With English translation: “Beyond these, there are not many sculptors of high repute; for, in the case of several works of very great excellence, the number of artists that have been engaged upon them has proved a considerable obstacle to the fame of each, no individual being able to engross the whole of the credit, and it being impossible to award it in due proportion to the names of the several artists combined. Such is the case with the Laocoon, for example, in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of statuary. It is sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the serpents with their marvelous folds. This group was made in concert by three most eminent artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, natives of Rhodes.” (translated by ed. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A.).
A letter by Giuliano da Sangallo’s son about the day of the discovery: “Since Michelangelo Buonarotti was always to be found at our house then … my father had him come too … Descending to where the sculptures lay, my father said: “That is the Laocoon, of which Pliny makes mention.” Then they widened the opening to pull the sculpture out. On seeing it, we turned to drawing it, all the while discoursing on ancient things!
Georgio Vasari referring to Jacopo Sansovino’s drawing: “Whereupon Bramante, who was likewise architect to Pope Julius, holding the first place at that time and dwelling in the Belvedere, having seen some drawings by this young man, and a nude recumbent figure of clay in full-relief, holding a vessel to contain ink, which he had made, liked them so much that he took him under his protection and ordered him that he should make a large copy in wax of the Laocoon, which he was having copied also by others, in order to take a cast in bronze—namely, by Zaccheria Zacchi of Volterra, the Spaniard Alonzo Berughetta, and Vecchio of Bologna”
Georgio Vasari referring to Baccio Bandinelli bronze copy Laocoon: “Then, having been provided by the Pope with rooms and an allowance, he returned to his Laocoon, a work which was executed by him in the space of two years with the greatest excellence that he ever achieved. He also restored the right arm of the ancient Laocoon, which had been broken off and never found, and Baccio made one of the full size in wax, which so resembled the ancient work in the muscles, in force, and in manner, and harmonized with it so well, that it showed how Baccio understood his art; and this model served him as a pattern for making the whole arm of his own Laocoon. This work seemed to his Holiness to be so good, that he changed his mind and resolved to send other ancient statues to the King, and this one to Florence; and to Cardinal Silvio Passerino of Cortona, his Legate in Florence, who was then governing the city, he sent orders that he should place the Laocoon at the head of the second court in the Palace of the Medici. This was in the year 1525. This work brought great fame to Baccio.”
John Ruskin claims, in Modern Painters: “For whatever knowledge of the human frame there may be in the Laocoön, there is certainly none of the habits of serpents. The fixing of the snake’s head in the side of the principal figure is as false to nature, as it is poor in composition of line. A large serpent never wants to bite, it wants to hold, it seizes therefore always where it can hold best, by the extremities, or throat, it seizes once and forever, and that before it coils, following up the seizure with the twist of its body round the victim, as invisibly swift as the twist of a whip lash round any hard object it may strike, and then it holds fast, never moving the jaws or the body, if its prey has any power of struggling left, it throws round another coil, without quitting the hold with the jaws; if Laocoön had had to do with real serpents, instead of pieces of tape with heads to them, he would have been held still, and not allowed to throw his arms or legs about.” John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 1856, vol. 3, ch. VII.
Johann Goethe said of the Laocoon “A true work of art, like a work of nature, never ceases to open boundlessly before the mind. We examine, – we are impressed with it, – it produces its effect; but it can never be all comprehended, still less can its essence, its value, be expressed in words.”
Discovery: Pergamon, Greece Title: Pergamon Altar Date: c. 180–160 BC Medium: Marble Location: Pergamon Museum, Berlin Image Credits: CC BY-SA 4.0, by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta
Title: Roman copy of the Sleeping Hermaphroditus Date: 2nd century BC Medium: Marble Dimensions: 169 x 89 cm Location: Louvre Museum, Paris
Artist: Baccio Bandinelli Title: Laocoon Date: 1520-1525 Medium: Marble Dimensions: (H) 50 cm Location: Uffizi Galleries, Vatican City Image Credits: CC BY-SA 4.0, by Bchamberlain95
Artist: Jacopo Sansovino Title: Laocoon Date: c. 1510-1525 Medium: Bronze with dark patina Dimensions: unknown Location:Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence Image Credits: CC BY 3.0, by Sailko
Artist: Giovanni Antonio da Brescia Title: Laocoon Date: c. 1506-1520 Medium: Engraving on paper Dimensions: 28.3 x 25 cm Location: British Museum, London
Artist: Michelangelo Title: The Brazen Serpent (detail) Date: 1511 Medium: Fresco Dimensions: 585 x 985 cm Location: Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
Artist: Raphael Title: Parnassus Date: 1511 Medium: Fresco Dimensions: (W) 670 cm Location: Vatican Museums, Vatican City
Artist: Michelangelo Title: Dying Slave Date: 1513–15 Medium: Marble Location:Louvre Museum, Paris Image Credits: CC BY-SA 3.0, by Jörg Bittner Unna
Discovery: Island of Melos (Cyclades, Greece) Title:Venus de Milo Date: c. 100 BC Medium: Marble Dimensions: (H) 202 cm Location: Louvre Museum, Paris Image Credits: CC BY-SA 4.0, by Livioandronico2013
Title: Copy of the Old Drunkard Date: 2nd century BC Medium: Marble Location:Capitoline Museums, Rome
Title: The Punishment of Dirce (known as The Farnese Bull) Date: 2nd century BC Medium: Mosaic Location: National Archeological Museum, Naples Image credits:CC BY-SA 3.0, by Vermip
Title: The Three Graces Date: 2nd century BC Medium: Marble Dimensions: 119 x 85 cm Location: Louvre Museum, Paris