Laocoon and his Sons
French, late 18th century
After the Antique, Vatican Museums, Pio-Clementine Museum, Octagonal Court (Inv. No. 1059)
H 30 x W 22 x D 12 cm
H 11? x W 8? x D 4¾ in.
The Laocoön group, in marble, was found on 14 January 1506 in the vicinity of Santa Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline Hill. In his Natural History (XXXVI, 37), Pliny the Elder wrote of this statue that it was the work of the Rhodes sculptors Hagesandros, Athanodoros and Polydoros, that it stood in the palace of the emperor Titus, and that it was to be preferred to all other depictions of a similar subject in painting or in bronze. When it was discovered, the statue was recognized from the ancient writer’s description and pope Julius II purchased it on 23 March 1506, and had it brought the the Belvedere.
Laocoön, the priest of Apollo, and his two sons are locked in the coils of two serpents, on the steps of an altar. Laocoön’s chest rises and swells as he vainly attempts to tear away the head of the serpent that is about to bite him on the hip. The other serpent has already sunk its fangs into the side of the younger son, who collapses in agony, while the elder son attempts to free himself from its coils. Virgil describes the episode in detail (Aeneid II, 199—233): the Trojan priest Laocoön had warned his compatriots against the wooden horse, left by the Greeks as “an offering to Athene”, and had hurled his lance at it. This angered Athene, who sent serpents to kill Laocoön. Misinterpreting the omen, the Trojans ignored Laocoön’s warning, and dragged the wooden horse into the city. Only Aeneas understood the true significance of the omen, and he and his family saved themselves by fleeing to Italy where Aeneas founded Lavinium, and his son Alba Longa. As far back as Caesar’s time the legendary Trojan ancestry of the gens Julia had been used as a political argument. Augustus made the legend the keystone of his empire, using it to legitimize his claim to the throne. The Laocoön group, which Pliny saw in the imperial palace, was probably commissioned by the emperor in the first half of the first century A.D., and made by the Rhodes sculptors after a bronze original of the 2nd century B.C.
When the group was unearthed, Pope Julius II sent for his court artists. Michelangelo was called to the site of the unearthing of the statue immediately after its discovery, along with the Florentine architect Giuliano da Sangallo and his eleven year-old son Fracesco da Sangallo, later a sculptor, who wrote an account on this sixty years later:
The first time I was in Rome when I was very young, the pope was told about the discovery of some very beautiful statues in a vineyard near Santa Maria Maggiore. The pope ordered one of his officers to run and tell Giuliano da Sangallo to go and see them. So he set off immediately. Since Michelangelo Buonarroti was always to be found at our house, my father having summoned him and having assigned him the commission of the pope’s tomb, my father wanted him to come along, too. I joined up with my father and off we went. I climbed down to where the statues were when immediately my father said, "That is the Laocoön, which Pliny mentions". Then they dug the hole wider so that they could pull the statue out. As soon as it was visible everyone started to draw [or "started to have lunch"], all the while discoursing on ancient things, chatting as well about the ones in Florence.
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, and various sections of snake. The older son, on the right, was detached from the other two figures. The age of the altar used as a seat by Laocoön remains uncertain. 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.
According to Vasari, in about 1510 Bramante, the Pope's architect, held an informal contest among sculptors to make replacement right arms, which was judged by Raphael, and won by Jacopo Sansovino. The winner, in the outstretched position, was used in copies, but not attached to the original group, which remained as it was until 1532, when Giovanni Antonio Montorsoli, a pupil of Michelangelo, added his even more straight version of Laocoön's outstretched arm, which remained in place until modern times. In 1725-27 Agostino Cornacchini added a section to the younger son's arm, and after 1816 Antonio Canova tidied up the group after their return from Paris. He wasn’t convinced by the correctness of the additions but wished to avoid a controversy.
In 1906 Ludwig Polak, archaeologist, art dealer and director of the Museo Baracco, discovered a fragment of a marble arm in a builder‘s yard in Rome, close to the findspot of the group. He noticed a stylistic similarity to the Laocoön group and he presented it to the Vatican Museums. It remained in their storerooms for half a century up until in 1957, the museum decided that this arm - bent, as Michelangelo had suggested - had originally belonged to the Laocoön, and they had it replaced. According to Paolo Liverani: Remarkably, despite the lack of a critical section, the join between the torso and the arm was guaranteed by a drill hole on one piece which aligned perfectly with a corresponding hole on the other.
A.Stewart, "To Entertain an Emperor: Sperlonga, Laokoon and Tiberius at the Dinner-Table", The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 67, (1977), pp. 76–90.
F.Haskell, N.Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500–1900, (Yale - 1981).
O. Rossi Pinelli, “Chirurgia della memoria: scultura antica e restauri storici,” in: Memoria dell'antico nell'arte italiana, ed. S.Settis, (Turin - 1986), III., 183–191.
H.Seymour, "Laocoon Rerestored", American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 93, No. 3, (July 1989), pp. 417–422.
F.Buranelli, Laocoonte. Alle origini dei Musei Vaticani, (Rome – 2006)
The Digital Sculpture Project: Laocoon: An Annotated Chronology of the “Laocoon” Statue Group
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