Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Laocoön and His Sons

Anastasia Manioudaki 16 May 2024 min Read

Laocoön and His Sons was one of the most influential sculptures during the Renaissance. The contorted bodies of the figures, their faces full of agony, sparked the imagination of many famous artists. The story of the very discovery of this sculpture alone is almost the stuff of legend, involving megastars of art history such as Michelangelo.

So, let’s see why Laocoön is so important.

Who Was Laocoön?

Laocoön: Laocoön and His Sons, Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Detail. Photograph by Livioandronico2013 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Laocoön and His Sons, Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Detail. Photograph by Livioandronico2013 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The story of Laocoön may have been hinted at in Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem about the Trojan Wars, although to be clear, Laocoön is not mentioned in the poem. Laocoön was a Trojan priest for some, a priest of Apollo.  For others, Laocoön was a priest of Poseidon, who warned the citizens of Troy against taking in the fabled wooden horse left by the Greeks outside the city gates. Then, Athena and Poseidon, who favored the Greeks, sent two great sea serpents to stifle the priest’s protestations and ultimately kill him and his sons.

This is the moment depicted in the sculpture. The serpents are wrapped around the three men who are writhing in agony as they try to break free of them.

Laocoön: Laocoön and His Sons, Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Detail. Photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Laocoön and His Sons, Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Detail. Photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Laocoon is at the center of the composition, sitting on an altar in a twisting position that recalls a giant “X.” His hands and legs fly in different directions, seemingly in a mad attempt to escape. A snake bites him in the thigh and he throws his head back screaming in agony. His face is a mask of pain with deeply furrowed brows adding more to the drama. Next to him on both sides stand his teenage sons. The one on the right seems to already be dead, his body has gone limp and is sinking to the ground. The other makes a futile attempt to free himself, turning to his father with fear and confusion in his eyes.

Laocoön: Laocoön and His Sons, Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Detail. Photograph by Sergey Sosnovskiy via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Laocoön and His Sons, Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Detail. Photograph by Sergey Sosnovskiy via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

An important thing to note is that the composition would have been painted in ancient times, like all ancient Greek sculptures. The bright colors would add even more to the drama.

In literature, Laocoön’s story is mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid, where the Roman poet gives the Trojan priest the famous line Timeō Danaōs et dōna ferentēs. The line means “I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts” which is used in modern English as a proverb to warn against trusting an enemy or adversary, even when they appear to be making an enticing offer.

The Discovery of the Sculpture

Laocoön: Raphael, Pope Julius II, 1511, National Gallery, London, UK.

Raphael, Pope Julius II, 1511, National Gallery, London, UK.

The Laocoön Group is referenced in antiquity in the works of Pliny the Elder, who may be the most well-known Roman writer of art. Pliny says that Laocoön stood in the palace of the emperor Titus and was the work of three Greek sculptors from the island of Rhodes. Nevertheless, we are not sure if it is an original artwork or a Roman copy, but it was certainly commissioned by a wealthy Roman, possibly even the imperial family.

The statue was discovered in February 1506, at the height of the Italian Renaissance, in a vineyard near the location of the Domus Aurea, Emperor Nero’s palace. When Pope Julius II learned about the discovery, he immediately sent Michelangelo to the site along with other court artists. The pope acquired the sculpture and placed it at the Belvedere Garden.

Laocoön’s Restoration

Laocoön: Laocoön and His Sons as it was between 1540 and 1957, with Laocoön’s extended arm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Laocoön and His Sons as it was between 1540 and 1957, with Laocoön’s extended arm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

When the Laocoön Group was discovered, several parts were missing, namely Laocoön’s right arm as well as part of the hand of one son and the right arm of the other, and various sections of the snakes. At the time, many artists tried to interpret the missing parts. Some thought that Laocoön’s arm should be extended in a dramatic gesture, others, among them Michelangelo, thought that the arm should be bent over the shoulder. Giorgio Vasari says that in 1510 Donato Bramante, an architect to the Pope, held an informal contest to solve the mystery. The contest was judged by Raphael and the outstretched arm suggestion won. A pupil of Michelangelo restored the sculpture in this way in 1532.

Laocoön: Laocoön and His Sons, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.

Laocoön and His Sons, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.

However, in 1906, Ludwig Pollak, archaeologist, art dealer, and director of the Museo Barracco, discovered a fragment of a marble arm in a builder’s yard in Rome, close to where the group was found. He thought the style of the fragment was similar to the Laocoön Group and brought the fragment to the Vatican Museums, where it remained in the museum’s storeroom for 50 years. In 1957, the museum concluded that the arm belonged to the sculpture and restored it, incorporating the fragment. Thus, after many many centuries, Michelangelo was proven right since the Laocoön’s arm was indeed bent over the shoulder.

Laocoön’s Legacy

Laocoön: Michelangelo, Dying Slave, c. 1513-1515, Louvre, Paris, France. Detail. Photograph by Jörg Bittner Unna via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Michelangelo, Dying Slave, c. 1513-1515, Louvre, Paris, France. Detail. Photograph by Jörg Bittner Unna via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The discovery of the Laocoön Group was a major influence for many Renaissance artists. The scale of the sculpture and the sinuous figures of Laocoön and his sons, the latter an important characteristic of Hellenistic art, left a mark on Michelangelo and this influence can be seen in The Rebellious Slave, and The Dying Slave, which he created for the tomb of Julius II but also in the ignudi on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. While depicting Homer in the Parnassus fresco in the Raphael Rooms, Raphael gave him the face of Laocoön.

Laocoön: Niccolo Boldrini (attr.) after Titian, parody of the Laocoön and His Sons, 16th century, Albertina, Vienna, Austria.

Niccolo Boldrini (attr.) after Titian, parody of the Laocoön and His Sons, 16th century, Albertina, Vienna, Austria.

As was common at the time, many prints of the sculpture were created and circulated throughout Europe. There is even one parody print modeled after Titian’s that shows the figures as apes. Another great artist who was impressed by the Laocoön Group was Peter Paul Rubens. He made over fifteen drawings of the sculpture while he traveled to Rome and the impact can be seen in many of his works.

As a general rule, the dramatic figures of Baroque art owe a lot to Laocoön and his sons. The theatricality of the composition along with the exaggerated musculature are two aspects that we see echoed over and over again in Baroque paintings and sculptures. To that we can add the overabundance of emotion and, of course, the X position of Laocoon’s body that influenced many artists.

The unexpected discovery of a Hellenistic sculpture in a vineyard in Rome was a turning point in the course of Renaissance art and planted the seeds for the emergence of the Baroque movement.

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