Title and Date of Work: Laocoön and His Sons (25 BC)
Name of Artist(s): Athanadoros, Hagesandros, and Polydoros of Rhodes
Location: Vatican Museum
Dimensions: 6 ft. ¼ in
This statue depicts a Trojan priest of Apollo, Laocoon, and his sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, being attacked by sea serpents. Laocoon was the son of Priam and became famous for warning the Trojans, in vain, against accepting the Trojan horse from the Greeks. Virgil describes this event in The Aeneid and gives Laocoon the famous line “Do not trust the horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts.” This gave birth to the famous line, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” The Trojans, however, cast his thoughts aside and saw the horse as a gift to Apollo and it worthy of worship. In a fit of rage, Laocoon thrust his spear into the side of the horse. Even though it hit some Greeks hiding in the belly of the horse, no one heard the moans and brought the horse in. This eventually led to Troy’s defeat. Poseidon was angered by Laocoon, because he was supporting the Greeks, and sent sea serpents to strangle him and his sons.
This statue depicts Laocoon and his sons right as the snakes are attacking them. This statue was actually lost for a period of time and finally found and excavated in Rome in 1506. An Author from the 1st century BC, Pliny the Elder, wrote about this statue and attributed the work to three Greek sculptors from the island of Rhodes. Word of the discovery spread quickly and Pope Julius II sent Michelangelo and various other persons to inspect the statue. This finding came at a perfect time, when ancient ideals were abundant and the Renaissance was in full swing. Restoring Rome to its ancient glory was a top priority right when this statue was found.
Pope Julius II claimed the statue for his own collection and triumphantly transported the sculpture through the streets of Rome. The statue was showered with flower petals and the Sistine Chapel Choir was ordered to serenade the sculpture. This statue was the prize of the century and everyone knew about it. There were many attempts to restore the sculpture (both Laocoon and his youngest son were missing their right arms) but Michelangelo declined when asked, saying his talents were less than those of the Greek sculptors. Michelangelo, instead, studied the sculpture and was greatly influenced by it and he incorporated the qualities of the sculpture he liked most into his own sculptures.
Looking at this statue can be a bit disturbing, evoking thoughts of death and suffering. The three are helpless, wrestling their imminent doom. Laocoon is in anguish, fighting as much as he can, while his two sons are just unwilling victims of their father’s actions. This statue grips our attention and makes us contemplate our own lives and what we are entangled in that is killing us. It’s no wonder why Michelangelo studied this piece and its perfection of the human body. Its was a perfect statue for the Renaissance but the theatricality and high emotion and serpentine pose makes this Baroque-esq. The furrowed brow and highly emotional pain would be copied by Bernini and Caravaggio.