4.07.2010

Laocoön and His Sons (early 1st century)



Athanadoros, Hagesandros, and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and His Sons (early 1st century marble copy of ancient Greek Bronze). Marble, 6 ft. ¼ in. Located in the Vatican Museum, Rome.

The Laocoön sculpture was first discovered during the Renaissance. It was found near the Domus Aurea or "Golden House of Nero" in 1506. The Pope at the time, Julius II (a Rovere and the man who commissioned the Sistine Ceiling) quickly bought the work and displayed it with his numerous other antiquities. Michelangelo and his protege/friend Guilio Romano where two of the first people to see the statue and it was one of the defining influences of Michelangelo's life. Anyone who knows of this work can see its echoes in Michelangelo's nudes, male or female, painted or in stone, from that day forward.

Laocoön and His Sons is a work rooted in antiquity in more ways than one. The subject matter, a priest of Posedion from Troy and his sons, is mentioned Homer's epic The Iliad, Virgil's Aeneid, and the sculpture itself, or the original bronze, was mentioned by Pliny the Younger in his Natural History. Laocoön's story is a cautionary tale of meddling in affairs that are greater than oneself. A Trojan priest of Poseidon, Laocoön is suspicious of the wooden Horse the Greeks seem to have left as a gift for Troy upon retreating in defeat. In Virgil's Aeneid he says the following to the effect of trying to convince the Trojans that this is not a gift but a trick. His words are the origins of the proverb, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."

"'O my poor people,
Men of Troy, what madness has come over you?
Can you believe the enemy truly gone?
A gift from the Danaans, and no ruse?
Is that Ulysses' way, as you have known him?*
Achaeans must be hiding in this timber,
Or it was built to butt against our walls,
Peer over them into our houses, pelt
The city from the sky. Some crookedness
Is in this thing. Have no faith in the horse!
Whatever it is, even when Greeks bring gifts
I fear them, gifts and all.
'"
(Virgil, Aeneid, Book II, 59-70)

After proclaiming thus, Laocoön hurled a spear into the Horse. Soon after that incident, while sacrificing to his god Poseidon, a pair of giant sea serpents came out of the sea and attack Laocoön and his two sons. Though this punishment, sent by Poseidon, was because of a previous grievance against the priest and his conduct, the Trojans interpreted the grotesque punishment as a sign that Laocoön had offended the gods by attacking the Horse. Laocoön and his two sons were brutally killed by the serpent and no one dared to help them. After this episode, the Trojans believe the Horse is a gift and haul it through their formerly impenetrable city walls and leave it in the center of the city for the night. The rest, they say, is history.

The statue itself is a complex and powerful work that draws the eye over it with the long, fluid lines of the serpents' bodies. The figures twist and pull furtively against the sinister bonds and the pain and agony of the father is very evident and emotional. The sons look to their father for guidance and he is powerless to help them, or himself. The viewer is pulled into the fight for survival by the blatant feelings depicted on the faces of the young boys and the struggle of the father. Laocoön's gaping mouth is so beautifully detailed one is almost able to hear his furious yell. The agony of betrayal, by both his gods and his people, is written on Laocoön's face as clearly as fear is written on his sons'. This is by far one of the most moving works of art, and it is clear why Michelangelo so worshipped the work.

Pliny states his own view its artistic merit in his own description:
"the Laocoon, which stands in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work to be preferred to all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced." - Pliny the Younger, Natural History XXXVI, 37


*Ulysses is the Roman name for Odysseus, the exceedingly clever Greek protagonist of the Odyssey.

6 comments:

  1. Hi Lydia,
    I love your description, very detail and helpful.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love this piece and hadn't read about it in awhile...Your post reignited my curiosity and excitement about the work (to sound super cheesy yet still true) :) Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
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  4. Thank you for providing this great post. This collection looks great and it makes any interior look fancy and modern.
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  5. I'm feeling the lighter one. It brings out the brightness of the tile.
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    ReplyDelete