One of the most surprising discoveries those Romans made when they began to dig in old Rome, looking for beautiful ruins, was the Laocoön. Michelangelo himself dropped what he was doing and hurried to see it lifted out of the dirt that had covered it for a thousand years.
It was a sculptural group from Hellenistic times showing the old priest and his sons being killed by snakes. Laocoön twists in agony and despair. But his body isn´t the miserable puppet or sack of sick-white flesh that the Italians of the Middle Ages might have made of him but the proud encarnation of the old gods, with all its noble “architecture” and dignity. It was the greatest example Michelangelo had ever seen of the sublime nude and it impressed him so much that there is a trace of this Laocoön in all his statues after the David.
Almost a hundred years later Bernini was still studying that old Greek Laocoön and getting ideas from it.
And when the artists were through with it along came the philosophers. A German called Winckelman wondered why the priest, Laocoön, whose whole body is tensed in pain, had been given such a philosophic face by the old sculptors (there were three of them, the work is signed). Why hadn´t they made him cry out in pain? Once they had done such a conscientious job showing the suffering in every inch of the limbs and torso, why had they stopped with his face, of all places? The face is precisely where you look to see what´s going on inside a man; and such a resigned face seems to contradict what the body is screaming. How easy it would have been for those great sculptors to carve the cords and bulging arteries in Laocoon´s neck and the swollen veins on his temples. And open his mouth for the biggest, loudest shout that sculpture had ever showed. Wasn´t it odd that they hadn´t?
Wincklemann was a scholar of the old school, which means lots of Greek. He thought he could answer his own question. “Your Greek,” he said, “didn´t shout or wail. He controlled himself. Dignity. No matter what you did to him he kept his mouth shut. He knew how to bear the pain and the injustice of life. I wish more of us were like him.” He also said that those three sculptors must have been real philosophers who would have behaved the same way as Laocoön when the chips were down.
That answer got a response from another German named Lessing. He said he agreed with Winckelmann that the Greeks were noble, philosophical sufferers, but that´s not the reason Laocoön was silent—or only sighed a little. Actually, the Greeks had no objection to a good shout when something hurt. And he brought examples from Greek drama. According to him, all the big heroes had shouted all through the poems and plays and nobody thought that was improper. It was natural, was what it was; and, above all, the Greeks were natural. They weren´t ashamed of their feelings, even their weaknesses, but they didn´t let them keep them from being courageous when they had to be courageous. They weren´t like a lot of modern fellows he could mention who had the wrong idea of being human. Nowadays we prided ourselves on our stiff upper lip and taught our young men to show their bravery by keeping their fears and anguish to themselves.
No, said Lessing. The reason the marble Laocoön didn´t shout was not a MORAL one. Even Vergil in the Aeneid mentions his screaming (“clamores horrendos ad sideram tollit”). The reason was an AESTHETIC one. According to the Greek ideas of beauty, that shout would have been out of place. It would have killed the statue. Why?
Beauty and suffering don´t go together. In a beautiful picture or statue you leave everything that is unpleasant out. Violent expression has to be avoided because it disturbs the serenity that beauty requires; it distorts perfect proportions. For example, you won´t find rage or despair depicted in any of the old works. If those artists did have to depict suffering, they softened its effects on their figures in the interest of beauty.
The Greeks, said Lessing, took their beauty seriously. The state even made laws about it. In Thebes, for instance, you could be fined for drawing a caricature because that exaggerated the ugly, the grotesque side of life. Portraits were restricted because the government felt there shouldn´t be a proliferation of un-ideal faces everywhere around to see. There should be only models of perfection.
So the Laocoön was a very tricky subject for a statue. The story, which is in the Aeneid by Vergil, says that Laocoön, a Trojan priest at the time of the siege of Troy, had made the gods angry at him for doing what any patriot would do: he warned the Trojans about the Wooden Horse. Neptune sent serpents out of the ocean to kill him and his two sons, presumably by strangling them, though in our statue one of the snakes is biting Laocoön´s hip. How do you show this little episode and keep the cool required by beauty? Your subject is anguish.
The artists (all three of them) had a real problem. But they reached a consensus. They would take the bull by the horns and show Laocoön right at the moment of greatest distress. They would depict the climax of the story—his execution. They would dramatize the moment of panic with twisting and broad gesture. They would show anguish in all the muscles of his body. But when they came to his face—to that mirror to the soul—they would hold back. A wide-open mouth, a scream to the high heavens, though it would have been realistic, would have distorted the hero´s features in an almost disgusting way. Coming upon the statue, the viewer would have looked the other way, just as you do when your eyes fall on deformity, wailing, madness.
The sculptors softened the wild anguish in the face to a more distant and general grief with resignation, in the interest of beauty. Now we can look squarely at the scene and feel pity for poor Laocoön instead of revulsion.