Definitions

laokoön

Laocoön and His Sons

The statue of Laocoön and His Sons, also called the Laocoön Group, is a monumental marble sculpture now in the Vatican Museums, Rome. The statue is attributed by the Roman author Pliny the Elder to three sculptors from the island of Rhodes: Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus. It shows the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being strangled by sea serpents.

History

The story of Laocoön had been the subject of a now lost play by Sophocles, and was mentioned by other Greek writers. Laocoön was killed after attempting to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse by striking it with a spear. The snakes were sent either by Apollo or Poseidon, and were interpreted by the Trojans as proof that the horse was a sacred object. The most famous account of these events is in Virgil's Aeneid (See the Aeneid quotation at the entry Laocoön), but this very probably dates from after the sculpture was made.

Various dates have been suggested for the statue, ranging from about 160 to about 20 BC. Inscriptions found at Lindos in Rhodes date Agesander and Athenedoros to a period after 42 BC, making the years 42 to 20 the most likely date for the Laocoön statue's creation.

The statue, which was probably originally commissioned for the home of a wealthy Roman, was unearthed in 1506 near the site of the Golden House of the Emperor Nero (who reigned from 54 to 68 AD), and it is possible that the statue belonged to Nero himself. The statue was also exhibited in the palace of Titus. It was acquired by Pope Julius II, an enthusiastic classicist, soon after its discovery and was placed in the Belvedere Garden at the Vatican, now part of the Vatican Museums.

Restorations

When the statue was discovered, Laocoön's right arm was missing, along with part of the hand of one child and the right arm of the other. Artists and connoisseurs debated how the missing parts should be interpreted. Michelangelo suggested that the missing right arms were originally bent back over the shoulder. Others, however, believed it was more appropriate to show the right arms extended outwards in a heroic gesture. The Pope held an informal contest among sculptors to make replacement right arms, which was judged by Raphael. The winner, in the outstretched position, was attached to the statue.

In 1957, however, the original right arm of Laocoön himself, with a snake coiled about his wrist, was found by L. Pollack in a builder's yard in Rome, and was in the position which had been suggested by Michelangelo. The arm has now been rejoined to the statue. The restored portions of the children's arm and hand were removed. In the course of disassembly breaks and cuttings and metal tenons and dowel holes have suggested that a more compact, three-dimensional pyramidal grouping of the three figures was contemplated or used in Antiquity before subsequent ancient and Renaissance restorations were made; the more open, planographic composition along a plane, familiar in the Laocoön group as restored, has been interpreted as "apparently the result of serial reworkings by Roman Imperial as well as Renaissance and modern craftsmen

There are many copies of the statue, including a well-known one in the Grand Palace of the Knights of St. John in Rhodes. Many still show the arm in the outstretched position. The copy in Rhodes has been corrected.

Influence

The discovery of the Laocoön made a great impression on Italian sculptors and significantly influenced the course of Italian Renaissance art. Michelangelo is known to have been particularly impressed by the massive scale of the work and its sensuous Hellenistic aesthetic, particularly its depiction of the male figures. The influence of the Laocoön is evidenced in many of Michelangelo's later works, such as the Rebellious Slave and the Dying Slave, created for the tomb of Pope Julius II. The tragic nobility of this statue is one of the themes in Gotthold Lessing's essay on literature and aesthetics, Laokoön, one of the early classics of art criticism.

The Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli was commissioned to make a copy by Pope Leo X de' Medici. Bandinelli's version, which was often copied and distributed in small bronzes, is at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence (see here). A bronze casting, made for François I at Fontainebleau from a mold taken from the original under the supervision of Primaticcio, is at the Musée du Louvre.

A woodcut, possibly after a drawing by Titian, parodied the sculpture by portraying three apes instead of humans. It has often been interpreted as a satire on the clumsiness of Bandinelli's copy, but it has also been suggested that it was a commentary on debates of the time about similarities between human and ape anatomy.

The original was seized and taken to Paris by Napoléon Bonaparte after his conquest of Italy in 1799, and installed in a place of honour in the Musée Napoléon at the Louvre, where it was one of the inspirations of neoclassicism in French art. Following the fall of Napoléon, it was returned by the British to the Vatican in 1816.

Laocoön as an ideal of art

Pliny's description of Laocoön as "a work to be preferred to all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced has led to a tradition which debates this claim that the sculpture is the greatest of all artworks. Johann Joachim Winkelmann wrote about the paradox of admiring beauty while seeing a scene of death and failure. The most influential contribution to the debate in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's essay Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, which examines the differences between visual and literary art by comparing the sculpture with Virgil's verse. He argues that the artists could not realistically depict the physical suffering of the victims, as this would be too painful. Instead, they had to express suffering while retaining beauty.

The most unusual intervention in the debate is William Blake's annotated print Laocoön, which surrounds the image with graffiti-like commentary in several languages, written in multiple directions. Blake presents the sculpture as a mediocre copy of a lost Israelite original, describing it as "Jehovah & his two Sons Satan & Adam as they were copied from the Cherubim Of Solomons Temple by three Rhodians & applied to Natural Fact or History of Ilium". This reflects Blake's theory that the imitation of ancient Greek and Roman art was destructive to the creative imagination, and that Classical sculpture represented a banal naturalism in contrast to Judeo-Christian spiritual art.

In 1940 Clement Greenberg wrote an essay entitled Towards a Newer Laocoön in which he argued that abstract art now provided an ideal for artists to measure their work against, and this title was copied by a 2007 exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute which exhibited work by modern artists influenced by the sculpture.

See also

Notes

References

  • Haskell, Francis, and Nicholas Penny, 1981. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900 (Yale University Press), cat. no. 52, pp. 243-47 (illustrated with the extended arm).

External links

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