Laocoön

Laocoön  (Height 8′ or 2.4 m.) Vatican Museum, Rome. A Wikimedia photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009)

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Works of art often have fascinating histories. And none like Laocoön.

It was carved in Greece, probably about one hundred years before Christ.

Years later a rich Roman bought it for his art collection and put it in his palace in the place of honor. It was surely the best work he or anyone in Rome had. The great Roman writer Pliny saw it and raved about it.

When the barbarians sacked Rome the statue disappeared and stayed missing for a thousand years.

Then in 1504, when Italians were digging in Rome to find old statues, they came across the Laocoön in a chamber deep underground. The old Roman owner had hidden it well from the barbarians.

Michelangelo himself, who was working in Rome at the time, dropped what he was doing and ran to see the great statue lifted out of the ground. He was impressed. Maybe he was jealous. In fact, the Laocoön is the ancient statue that looks most like a Michelangelo. (See Is the Laocoön by Michelangelo?)

Now it is in the Vatican Museum.

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In the eighteenth century there was a famous argument between German philosophers and art critics on this statue. Read about it in  Why Didn’t Laocoön Shout?

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9 Responses to Laocoön

  1. Ken Januski says:

    I’ve never used vulgarity here Swallows. And I don’t intend to now. But as I think of Michelangelo’s reaction to seeing this I have to think it was something like ‘Holy …………..’ Either that or he was speechless.

    It just seems like such a fully, formed modern sculpture. If I could imagine myself in Michelangelo’s place (exceptionally hard to do I know) I can’t help but think he must have been stupified. ‘This sculptor was doing something hundreds of years ago that I haven’t even considered in my wildest dreams.’

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: No danger of vulgarity–“holy cow!” is what Michelangelo no doubt said. (Actually, I wonder what the common exclamation was in those days. You would have heard it everywhere all day then and now you have to be a scholar to discover it.) Yes, wasn’t it incredible that the great statue was discovered just at that time and shown to the man who could learn the most from it? It’s almost spooky. Looks like destiny.

  2. wrjones says:

    So beautiful. If I give serious thought to starting from a block of stone and producing this piece, I can’t grasp that it is even possible. It would be a wondrous experience if we could watch the artist, in a time lapse documentary, develop from the his/her first attempts at carving to being a master.

    • 100swallows says:

      Bill: Don’t exaggerate the difficulty of carving a figure in stone. It would soon look very possible to you if you spent a few days in a sculptor’s workshop. What would surprise you is how well and fast men who are not artists–the workshop hands– can carve (whip off) a figure using a technique called pointing. They can copy a model in stone almost to perfection, no matter how complex.
      The important thing is the figure (the model) itself. It’s true that the Laocoön is masterfully carved but it is the conception that is unique and great.

  3. What a beautiful statue and a fascinating story about Michaelangelo running to see it when it was unearthed! I wonder what the original artist would feel if he could see that his work survived and is viewed to the present day, and to know that it inspired someone like Michaelangelo!

    • 100swallows says:

      Lynne: Isn’t it strange that the great work was lifted from the ground for just the right eyes (Michelangelo’s) and just at the right moment in his career for it to influence him? If it had appeared now it would be raved about by art people but have zero influence on practicing artists.

      • Absolutely. Just this morning I was thinking about the development of spacecraft travel just in time for the line-up of planets that happens only once every 400 years or so. Kind of the same thing as that statue being unearthed just in time for Michaelangeo’s eyes!

  4. erikatakacs says:

    Cannot agree on zero influence, Swallows. Don’t discount “modern” artists’ influences. I remember reading somewhere that after Warhol’s death it was discovered he owned a large collection of books on classical art…
    That is a very good picture of the Laocoon. As I was looking at it I started wondering if Laocoon as a stand-alone would have looked better. Would it make an even stronger piece? I’ve always thought the other figures were weaker, only there to support the narrative…? is it not said that they were sculpted by another sculptor? (I didn’t read the links yet).

    All the best to you in the New Year!

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: It’s hard to draw or sculpt a male nude figure and not be influenced by Michelangelo, even if you’ve never seen his work. If the Laocoön were unearthed today, we would see it through his eyes—the influence would still be his. People like Professor Catterson can’t even tell the difference—they think the Laocoön is by Michelangelo! Of course Warhol or someone might make a parody or a “homage” painting with the Laocoön as a subject. I guess that’s “influence”. I meant that after Michelangelo no one would see anything new in Agesander’s representation of the male human body.

      Pliny attributed the work to three sculptors—once I read that it was even signed by them but I haven’t seen that stated again. See Wiki for the theories about who those might have been. The most surprising one claims that they were not the original sculptors but copyists!
      And check out the incredible restoration history and the “Michelangelo was right”.

      Maybe Laocoön would have been better without those two sons but they must have impressed Michelangelo too because they look like his Slaves. The two weak figures remind me of those women left and right (Active and Contemplative) of his great Moses.

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