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Laoco÷n and his Sons

Museum Label:

Chiurazzi description:
Laoco÷n. One of the most discussed and famous group of the Hellenistic art, defined by Michelangelo as a prodigy of art. Is the original work of the Rhodian artist Agessandro, II century b.C. Laoco÷n a Troyan priest of Apollo, who dared to dissuade against drawing the wooden horse into the city of Troy was, together with his two sons, condemned by the anger of the gods to be crushed to death by serpents. Incomparable is the expression of anguish and spasm of suffering in the face of Laoco÷n.
Origin: Museo Vaticano

Roman copy of a Hellenistic original from c. 200 BCE, marble, height 1.84 m, Vatican. Trojan priest Laoco÷n and his two sons are attacked at an altar by giant snakes. Pliny said it was the work of three sculptors from Rhodes, Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athenodoros. The date of the Laocoon is controversial, some scholars arguing for the late second century BCE, others for c. 50 BCE.

Laoco÷n (pronounced roughly La — oh — koh — on), son of Priam, was allegedly a priest of Poseidon (or of Apollo, by some accounts) at Troy; he was famous for warning the Trojans in vain against accepting the Trojan Horse from the Greeks, and for his subsequent divine execution. Virgil's Aeneid describes the circumstances of Laoco÷n's death as follows:
Laoco÷n warned his fellow Trojans against the wooden horse presented to the city by the Greeks. In the Aeneid, Virgil gives Laoco÷n the famous line  "Do not trust the Horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts." This line is the source of the saying: "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."
The Trojans disregarded his advice, however, and in his resulting anger Laoco÷n threw his spear at the Horse. Poseidon (some say Athena), who was supporting the Greeks, subsequently sent sea-serpents to strangle Laoco÷n and his two sons,

Subject info:
On January 14, 1506, a momentous discovery was made in the city of Rome. While digging in his vineyard on the Esquiline Hill, near the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, a farmer began to uncover pieces of marble statuary. A large trench was cut around the statuary fragments to allow closer examination of the nine pieces, which appeared to belong to a sculptural composition that included a life-size figure. Word of the discovery quickly reached Pope Julius II, who promptly dispatched the architect Giuliano da Sangallo, and the artist, Michelangelo, to inspect the new discovery.

Though ancient sculptures were regularly pulled from the ground in Renaissance Rome, this find proved to be of extraordinary interest. Almost immediately, the fragments were identified as belonging to the Laocoon, a sculpture that had stood in the palace of the ancient Emperor Titus and that was known to Renaissance humanists because it received the highest of praise from the first-century writer, Pliny the Younger, in his volume, The Natural History.

Finding the Laocoon was a dream come true for well-educated Renaissance artists and patrons who were intent on restoring Rome to its ancient glory. At the very moment in which the idea of "Rome Reborn" was being made manifest in citywide art and architecture projects, the Laocoon emerged from the earth, further fuelling the Renaissance dream of returning Rome to its ancient glory.  The only pieces missing were Laoco÷n's right arm and both his son's right hands.

By March of 1506, Pope Julius II managed to procure the sculpture for his own antiquities collection, and in July of the same year he triumphantly transported the sculpture through the streets of the Rome, which were lined with throngs of citizens who showered the sculpture with flower petals. Julius even ordered the Sistine Chapel Choir to serenade the sculpture as the procession made its way to the Belvedere Courtyard of the Vatican Palace. Without a doubt, the Laocoon was the prize of the century.

Once the sculpture arrived in the Belvedere Courtyard, it set off a flurry of attempts to restore it (both Laocoon and his youngest son were missing their right arms), as well as efforts to emulate its admirable aesthetic qualities. Every artist working in early sixteenth-century Rome was certainly aware of the sculpture. Asked to create new arms for Laocoon and his son, Michelangelo declined, claiming his talents to be less than those of the Greek sculptors who created the work some 1500 years earlier. The architect, Donato Bramante, hosted a contest amongst artists to make a wax copy of the sculpture, and that contest - won by the Venetian architect Jacopo Sansovino - was judged by the painter Raphael.

The ancient Laocoon exerted a potent aesthetic power on the artists of the High Renaissance. The rediscovery of the sculpture - which depicts a Trojan priest punished by the gods for warning his fellow countrymen about the Greek ruse of the Trojan horse - accelerated the rediscovery of the classical aesthetic. The Laocoon became a standard against which Renaissance art was judged, thereby establishing a canon of beauty that influenced the making of art for the next 400 years.

Almost without a doubt, the artist most influenced by the sculpture was Michelangelo, whose representation of the human figure in motion was fundamentally changed by his study of the Laocoon. His response to the sculpture was not that of simply copying its form or composition, however. Rather, he incorporated the qualities of the sculpture that he found most compelling into his own artistic style.

Michelangelo's oeuvre clearly demonstrates that he was intrigued by the sculpture's muscular tension and by the spiraling motion of the central figure as he struggles to free himself from the strangling snakes. On the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Michelangelo created numerous figures with similarly muscular anatomies and placed them in serpentinata positions that recall that of the central figure in the Laocoon.

And, Michelangelo found the physical struggle portrayed in the sculpture to be evocative of the psychological challenges faced by Neoplatonic thinkers like himself, who struggled to raise their minds above the challenges presented by the physical demands of their bodies. Just as Laocoon and his sons struggle against the snakes that will bring them to their death, so too do a number of Michelangelo's sculpted figures struggle against external bonds, as in his famous Slaves, intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II, but now in the Louvre in Paris and the Accademia in Florence.

It is not just Michelangelo who responded to the Laocoon. The work profoundly affected the development of the western
aesthetic from the time of its discovery. Raphael, in a painting called Galatea, responded to the work, as did the Venetian artist Titian and his Greek student, El Greco. Rubens drew the Laocoon and based the composition of some of his paintings on the ancient sculpture, and even the French artist Gericault - so admiring of Michelangelo - inserts Laocoon-like passages into his famous political painting, The Raft of the Medusa.

It's not just artists who found themselves stimulated by the Laocoon, however. The intense pain suffered by Laocoon and his sons, and the contrast of this pain with the beauty of the sculpture, was a topic of discussion for the eighteenth-century father of art history, J. J. Winckelmann. How, Winckelmann asked, can a viewer cope with the inevitable mental conflict that arises when one admires the beauty of the Laocoon, but is at the same time painfully aware that the sculpture portrays the final, painful moments of a man who has failed to save his own life and that of his own children? Another eighteenth-century intellect, G. E. Lessing, discussed the work in different terms. In his influential essay, Laocoon, he used the work to distinguish between poetry and the fine arts, thereby giving birth to the branch of philosophy devoted to theories about the nature of art and artistic expression, aesthetics.

The history of the Laocoon is also political. The work was so valued that nine years after its discovery, in 1515 after the Victory of Marignano, Francis I, king of France, demanded that Pope Leo X give him the Laocoon as a spoil of war. Leo X refused, and cleverly had a replica of the sculpture made, intending to send the French king a fake if he was forced to comply with his wishes. Neither the original, nor the replica, went to France in the sixteenth century, but the Laocoon did have a Parisian idyll that began in 1797. By the time of Napoleon, the sculpture was so established in the artistic canon, that it was carted off and taken to Paris, along with other famous works like the Apollo Belvedere. These Italian spoils stood in places of honor in Napoleon's Louvre, until they were restored to Rome after his defeat.

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