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Digital Sculpture Project: Laocoön

Catalogue Entry: Laocoon Group

Name: Laocoon Group

Collection: Vatican Museums, Museo Pio-Clementino

Inventory Numbers: 1059 (statue group), 1064 ("Pollak" right arm of the father)

Date Created: 40–20 BCE

Date Acquired: 1506 CE

Sculptors: Athanadoros, Hagesander, Polydoros

Material: Parian marble

Dimensions: Height 208 cm; width 163 cm; depth 112 cm.

Description: The figure of Laocoon is prominent both because of its central position and also because of the muscular power of its imposing body. The Trojan struggles with the two serpents who have gotten hold of him, but he is already starting to yield and falls in a seated position onto the altar. He had been standing next to it while making a sacrifice in his capacity as a priest of the doomed city. In a design evoking high tension, Laocoon still supports himself with his left leg projecting to touch the ground with the toes of his foot, while the right leg is bent to touch the steps on the base of the altar. The priest's left arm seeks in vain to distance from his side the head of the first serpent, which assumes the dimensions and the force of a boa constrictor threatening to give him a fatal bite. The right arm, in contrast, is bent and compressed by the coils of the same serpent. Laocoon's head is turned back with a grimace of pain in which are mixed Laocoon's horror for the death of his sons, the exertion of his struggle, and awareness of his own imminent death. To his right, the younger son is completely enwrapped by the coils of the second serpent. He raises his right arm in a final tremor, but the poisonous bite under his armpit has had an immediate effect, and already the boy has begun to go limp upon the altar on which his father is also supporting himself. The elder brother, to his left, turns with a look of horror toward his father and seems about to free his ankle from the tail of the second serpent.

Interpretation and significance: This image finds no exact comparanda in any ancient work of art and follows a tradition different from that used by Virgil in the Aeneid.

The poet describes the death of both the sons while in the statue group the elder son seems to save himself, as was recounted in the Iliuspersis, a work of Arctinus, the Milesian poet of the sixth century BCE. As is well known, Laocoon is killed by the serpents sent by the gods so that he does not reveal the deception of the Trojan Horse left on Troy's beach by the Greeks who pretend to sail home after besieging the city for ten years. The Trojans, in contrast, unaware of what they are doing, will transport the horse into the city and with it the enemy warriors hidden inside. The warriors' task is to open the city gates at night so that the other Greek soldiers, once returned to Troy, can storm the city, bringing its destruction and downfall.

The work is one of the few works of Classical sculpture that can be exactly identified and attributed to definite artists thanks to a passage in Pliny the Elder (Nat. Hist. 36.37–38), which places it in the residence of the future emperor Titus. Despite this fact, the dating and style have been debated in the enormous bibliography in which many conflicting views are found.

To simplify a complex set of problems, it suffices to state here that one common theory interprets it as a copy of the period of the Emperor Tiberius (14–37 CE), created by three Rhodian sculptors named Athanodorus, Agesander, and Polydoros (all mentioned by Pliny), while the lost original will have been a bronze statue of the Pergamene school dating to ca. 140 BCE. More recently, scholars have tended to consider it an original work sculpted in the early Augustan age (40–20 BCE) in an eclectic and sophisticated style deriving its inspiration from earlier models of various provenience and date. This second dating (adopted here) is also based on the reconstruction of the careers of the three sculptors mentioned by Pliny, known from several other inscriptions. The most famous of these presents the signature of the group on the sculpture of the ship of Odysseus assaulted by Scylla found in the “Grotto of Tiberius” at Sperlonga.

The interest of the imperial house for this sculpture stems from the fact that the story of Troy is tightly tied to the origins of Rome. According to tradition, it was from Troy that the hero Aeneas fled, bringing with him to Latium his father Anchises and his son Ascanius (also known as Iulus). Aeneas married Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus, founding in honor of his wife the city of Lavinium (modern-day Pratica di Mare). From here, Ascanius/Iulus is said to have departed to found Albalonga (today, Castel Gandolfo), the town in which, generations later, Rome's founders, Romulus and Remus, were born. Julius Caesar and Augustus considered Iulus as the progenitor of their family and thus boasted that their family—the gens Iulia—had a mythical origin and even a divine parentage: Aeneas was, in fact, the son of Anchises and the goddess Venus.

Here we may note that the right arm of Laocoon was missing at the time of its discovery and was reconstructed in various ways with different formal solutions. In 1905 the archaeologist Ludwig Pollak (1868–1943), the Czech-born curator of the Museo Barracco in Rome, was able to recognize the original arm in the shop of a Roman stonemason. After publishing the find, he donated it to the Vatican Museums. Here, in 1957, Filippo Magi inserted it into the statue in its present position. 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.

Basic Bibliography:

  • B. Andreae, Laokoon und die Gründung Roms, Mainz 1988.
  • N. Himmelmann, Sperlonga. Die homerischen Gruppen und ihre Bildquellen, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Vorträge G 340, Opladen 1995.
  • P. Liverani, Il Laocoonte in età antica, in Il Laocoonte e la fondazione dei Musei Vaticani (cat. della mostra, Città del Vaticano 18.11.2006–28.2.2007), Roma 2006, pp. 23–40.
  • F. Magi, Il ripristino del Laocoonte, Memorie della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia IX.1, 1960.
  • S. Settis, Laocoonte: fama e stile, Roma 1999.
  • L. Rebaudo, Il braccio mancante. I restauri del Laocoonte (1506–1957), Trieste 2007.

[Catalogue entry by Paolo Liverani]


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