Laocoön and his sons is a Greek sculptural group of controversial dating, although it is usually considered an original work from the early Christian era. The work is slightly larger than life-size, 2.42 m high and executed in white marble.
It is in the Museo Pio-Clementino belonging to the Vatican Museums in Rome, and together with the Torso del Belvedere is the only Greek original in the antiquarium.
It represents the death of the Trojan priest Laocoön, or Laocoön, punished by the gods to die strangled to death by sea serpents together with his two sons. The work was executed by Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodorus of Rhodes, who belonged to the Rhodian School of the Hellenistic period.
History of Laocoön and His Sons
This sculptural group was known from ancient descriptions, but was thought to be lost. It was discovered on January 14, 1506 in a vineyard near Santa Maria Maggiore, land owned by Felice de Fredis, which was located on the Roman Esquiline and which in ancient times had been part of Nero's Domus Aurea and then of the palace of the Emperor Titus.
Pope Julius II sent the architect Giuliano de Sangallo, who together with Michelangelo identified the sculpture as the one described by the Roman author Pliny the Elder in his encyclopedic work Naturalis Historia. Pliny wrote laudatory comments on the work he saw in the palace of the emperor Titus around the year 70:
It must be placed ahead of all, not only of the art of statuary but also of painting. It was sculpted in a single block of marble by the excellent Rhodian artists Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodorus and represents Laocoön, his sons and the admirably coiled serpents.
-Pliny the Elder.
Francesco da Sangallo, later a sculptor, wrote an account of the discovery of the sculpture more than 60 years later:
The first time he was in Rome when he was very young, the pope received news of the discovery of some very beautiful statues in a vineyard near Santa Maria Maggiore. The pope ordered one of his assistants to hurry and tell Giuliano da Sangallo to go and see them. So he left immediately. Since Michelangelo Buonarroti was always at our house, my father, having summoned him and having assigned him the commission for the pope's mausoleum, wanted him to accompany him as well.
I joined my father and we left. I descended to where the statues were when immediately my father said, "That is the Laocoön that Pliny says." Then they dug the biggest hole so they could dig the statue out. As soon as it was visible they all started drawing, chatting all the time about ancient things, chatting also about the ones in Florence.
-Francesco da Sangallo.
When it was discovered it was missing the right arms of Laocoön and of one of his sons, and the right hand of the other son; some parts of the serpents were also missing. The copies made by the engraver Giovanni Antonio da Brescia testify to its state at that time: a drawing (now preserved in Düsseldorf, Germany) and an engraving that contributed to its rapid fame.
It was decided to restore the sculptural group and there was controversy about how the gesture of the missing arm of the father should have been. Michelangelo proposed to restore the father's arm in a flexed position; the artist did make such an arm, but he did not put it on and it is now exhibited next to the sculptural group.
Amico Aspertini also made a drawing with the same position of the arm, and in 1525, Baccio Bandinelli made a copy of the whole group with a similar position for Pope Leo X, a copy of which is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Both Michelangelo and Sangallo advised Julius II to acquire the work, who, after brief negotiations, bought the work for a large sum of money-over 600 ducats.
In 1509, Julius II had it transferred to the Vatican along with two other sculptures, the Apollo of Belvedere and the Venus Felix, installing them in three niches in the Octagonal Courtyard of the Belvedere, which today is part of the Vatican Museums.
King Francis I of France obtained the pope's permission for the realization of several molds; to make the copy he sent Francesco Primaticcio, who made them in 1540. These molds were used to make a bronze sculpture that was installed in the Palace of Fontainebleau.
A first restoration made by Bandinelli with wax, where he depicted the bent arm, was modified in 1532 by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli, who made the restoration in terracotta and with Laocoon's arm stretched out. Among those who criticized this restoration was Titian, who made a drawing in which he depicted Laocoön and his sons as if they were three monkeys. This caricature was engraved by Niccolò Boldrini.
In the eighteenth century, the sculptor Agostino Cornachini restored the work again, changing the material of the restoration for marble and took the opportunity to change the son's arm, modifying the gesture of the son, which was also stretched. In 1798, after the signing of the Treaty of Tolentino,
the group was transferred to Paris by Napoleon's army as part of the spoils of war during his campaign in Italy, but without the added elements, and placed in the Louvre Museum until its return to the Vatican in 1816, when it was added again.
In 1905, archaeologist Ludwig Pollack identified the original arm, finding it in an old store on Via Labicana. The arm had the flexed position as Michelangelo had already advanced; the arm was added in a restoration carried out between 1957 and 1960, and directed by Filippo Magi, a restoration in which all the added pieces were removed.
Dates of Laocoön and His Sons
The dating of the work is controversial: at first it was dated to the first century B.C. because signatures belonging to that century of a Rhodian sculptor named Athenodorus, son of Agesander, were preserved. But in 1954, Gisela M. A. Richter pointed out that the names Athenodorus and Agesander were very common in Rhodes for several generations,
and she also appreciated a great similarity of the work with a frieze representing the fight between gods and giants from the altar of Zeus in Pergamon. Specifically, the expression and features of Laocoön's face are very similar to the giant that Athena grabs by the hair, just as the serpents have equivalents in the aforementioned altar. Therefore, he dated it to the same period as the latter, in the 2nd century BC.
However, there are also clear differences with the Pergamon sculpture: a more vibrant face of Laocoön than that of the Pergamon giants, differences in the technique of modeling the hair and an unimportant role of the clothes of the Laocoön group compared to the Pergamon group.
Furthermore, it has been shown that, despite the fact that most of the sculpture was made with marble from Rhodes, one of the blocks used is marble from Luni, of Italian origin; this fact does not agree with what Pliny described, who only distinguished one block of marble, nor with the fact that this marble was not exploited before the time of Augustus. However, Tazartes points out that the group is made with marble from Phrygia.
It has also been suggested that it could be a copy or a free Roman variant of a Hellenistic bronze original from the 3rd-2nd centuries BC,420 or from the 2nd-1st centuries BC, or more specifically, from a bronze made in Pergamon in the second half of the 2nd century BC.
The dating in the 2nd century BC cannot be maintained after the discovery made in 1957. In that year several fragments of five other sculptural groups were found in the so-called grotto of Tiberius, in Sperlonga, on the southern coast of Latium.
The groups also represent Homeric themes and were brought to the cave either by wealthy Roman citizens to prevent their destruction, possibly at the hands of early Christians, or were carved expressly for that cave, fitted out by Tiberius as a banquet hall. One of the groups, representing the theme of Ulysses blinding Polyphemus bears the signature of the three Rhodian sculptors mentioned by Pliny, who wrote:
Athenodorus, son of Agesander, and Agesander, son of Peonius, and Polydorus, son of Polydorus, Rhodians, did it.
The inscription, according to most epigraphers, must belong to the first century A.D., therefore, the authors would have lived in that century. Both the Ulysses and the Laocoön group could have been made in that century for a Roman patron, who could have been the emperor Tiberius himself.
In 2005 the American researcher Lynn Catterson held a conference where she launched the hypothesis that the sculptural group could be a forgery made by Michelangelo, based on a series of data that relate it to him. However, this hypothesis seems to ignore the 1957 discovery in Sperlonga of fragments of sculptures made with a similar technique to the Laocoön and his sons.
Laocoön and His Sons Mythology
In the Greek myths it is related that, during the siege of Troy, two serpents were sent by Apollo, Poseidon, or Athena, and attacked Laocoön, Trojan priest of Apollo, and his two sons.
The versions that relate this episode are numerous and it is debated whether the sculptural group must have been based on Virgil's account in the Aeneid, in which Laocoön and his two sons died, or on an earlier version narrated in a lost poem of the Trojan cycle, the Iliupersis, where Laocoön and only one of the sons died. The source could also have been a lost tragedy.
Laocoön was the priest of the temple of Apollo Timbreo at Troy and, like Cassandra, warned the Trojans that if they let the Trojan Horse into the city they would fall into a trap set by the Achaean Greeks:
Fools, do not trust the Greeks even when they bring you gifts!
Laocoon went so far as to throw a spear that it stuck in the wooden horse, but when the Trojans were about to destroy the horse, the Trojan soldiers brought Sinon, who with lies devised by Odysseus managed to convince Priam that it was a sacred image of Athena. Laocoon, in an attempt to prevent the horse from entering the city, exclaimed:
'Those are lies,' cried Laocoön, 'and they seem to have been invented by Odysseus. Do not believe him Priam! I beg you, sir, to allow me to sacrifice a bull to Poseidon. When I return I hope to see this wooden horse reduced to ashes.
-Graves, The Greek Myths
When Laocoön was about to sacrifice the bull to Poseidon, two sea serpents, named Porces and Caribea, or Curisia, or Peribea, arrived from Tenedos and the Calidnes; they came out of the sea and attacked Laocoön's twin sons, named Antiphantus and Timbreus or Melanthus, coiling around their bodies; Laocoön tried to save them but suffered the same fate.
Virgil's tradition depicts the serpents as divine punishment for attempting to destroy the horse. The Trojans interpreted the episode as a sign that the horse was a sacred object and that Sinon had spoken the truth. Virgil, in Book II of the Aeneid, thus relates the attack of the serpents:
They, with steady gait, rush towards Laocoon; first they coil about the tender bodies of his two sons, and tear their miserable limbs with their teeth; then they snatch the father who, wielding a dart, was going to their aid, and hold him with their huge rings: already girded with two turns round his body, and twice encircled to the neck the scaly back, they still exceed above their heads and their erect cervices. Laocoon struggles with both hands to untie those knots, while he drips from his bandages slime and black poison, and at the same time he raises to the stars frightful cries.
There is another version of the myth that explains that it was a punishment from Apollo because Laocoön had married Antiopa and fathered children, consummating the act before the statue of the god, a fact that constituted a sacrilege, since he had taken a vow of celibacy.
Priam thought that the death of Laocoön was a punishment for having attempted to destroy the horse, rather than for having disrespected Apollo. However, different versions of the myth go so far as to say that only one of the sons died, or that Laocoön himself was saved. They also disagree as to whether the episode took place on the altar of Poseidon or Apollo.
Study of the work Laocoön and His Sons
The work is framed within a pyramidal figure composition, and the best position for its observation is frontal; the work represents human emotions in their maximum pathetic expression. It is, together with the great altar of Zeus and Athena of Pergamon (180 B.C.-160 B.C.), an example of Hellenistic scenographic sculpture of the most extreme dramatism.
Since the Renaissance, this group is representative of ancient art and of the academic and baroque current of Hellenistic art.
The expression of guilt and the great drama of Laocoön, who contorts in painful agony, are shocking. Within the group, the two monstrous serpents, coiled to kill according to the punishment imposed by the gods, are part of the visual composition of the group, and with their curved lines achieve the union between all the characters, a fact that helps to show the dynamic that emerges from the group.
There is a will to exaggerate the theatrical effect of the anatomy, more accentuated than the altar of Pergamon, and the moral pain of Laocoön upon witnessing the death of his two sons is added.
Authors such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing produced essays on the sculptural group.
Winckelmann, in the first edition of his History of Art in Antiquity of 1764, analyzes, among many other works, the Laocoön group, and points out that the figure of the larger son had to be executed separately.
He describes Laocoön as a spectacle of human nature subjected to the greatest pain it is capable of enduring. This pain swells his muscles and strains his nerves, but on his brow one sees the serenity of his spirit. His chest rises to try to contain the pain and through the compressed belly you can see the movement of his viscera.
His children look at him asking for help and he manifests his paternal tenderness in the tender look of his eyes that are directed towards the sky imploring help from the gods. The opening of his mouth has a movement that expresses ataraxia and indignation at the idea of undeserved punishment.
Lessing, in his 1766 work of aesthetic criticism Laocoön or on the limits in painting and poetry, explains that "sculpture and painting are made with figures and colors in space" and "poetry with articulated sounds in time".
Goethe wrote his article On Laocoön in 1798, where he points out that artists have stripped Laocoön of his priesthood and mythological references and turned him into a normal father with two children threatened by two animals. He emphasizes the sensation of movement produced by the group, which seems to change position if the viewer alternately opens and closes his eyes.
He also praises the moment chosen by the artists as being of maximum interest: when one of the bodies is so imprisoned that it has become helpless, the second is wounded and is in a position to defend itself, and the third still has the hope of fleeing.
The father is represented in a position in which he reacts at the very moment he is bitten on the hip by one of the snakes: he shifts his body to the opposite side, contracts his belly, swells his chest, throws his shoulder forward and tilts his head towards the wounded side.
The feet are immobilized and the arms are in a fighting position, offering a great resistance which, however, does not seem to be effective. This is a strong man but because of his age he is not at his full strength and therefore not very capable of withstanding pain.
The smaller son, totally imprisoned, makes unsuccessful efforts to try to free himself and alleviate his pain. The larger son is only slightly imprisoned by one foot and is horrified and screams at his father's movements. But he still has a chance to break free and flee.
There is a plaster reproduction developed in the Vatican Museums in 1934, and now located in the museum of artistic reproductions in Bilbao.
Later Influence of Laocoön and His Sons
The work already had great influence at the time of its discovery due to its degree of perfection. Renaissance artists were highly influenced. Thus, Michelangelo was inspired by it for several of his works, such as some of the figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, particularly the posture of Haman in the couple Esther and Haman and The Bronze Serpent, two of the slaves in the tomb of Julius II, and in the sketches of The Battle of Cascina.
John of Bologna was inspired by it for his sculptural group The Rape of the Sabine (1581-1583). In The Parnassus, a painting by Raphael, there is also a similarity with the head of Laocoön in the figure representing Homer. Titian, Rubens, El Greco, William Blake and Max Ernst made interpretations of the sculptural group.
In an Asterix album Asterix and Caesar's Laurels, a slave appears posing as Laocoön with ropes simulating snakes.
It has been a source of inspiration in German art history, in writers of the mid-18th century such as Winckelmann, Lessing, Goethe, Herder, Novalis and Arthur Schopenhauer. Each of them comments on the sculpture and its aesthetic reflections.