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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Laocoön and His Sons

Laocoon and His Sons

Laocoon and His Sons

“Laocoön and His Sons” is one of the most famous ancient sculptures and a highlight of the Vatican Museums, ever since it was placed there on public display. The statue depicts Laocoön, the priest of Apollo from the city of Troy and his two sons who are locked in the coils of two serpents, on the steps of an altar.

Trojan War

Troy in Asia Minor, now modern Turkey, was the site of the Trojan war which was fought between the Greeks and Trojans for ten years (1194 to 1184 BC.). The Greeks could not penetrate the giant walls of Troy or force a surrender. So, after ten years the Greeks withdrew from battle and left behind an enormous wooden horse statue as a tribute.

Laocoön tried to persuade the Trojan leaders not to bring the giant horse trophy inside the city walls of Troy. The giant wooden horse left behind by the Greeks looked like a gift to the Trojans, and they believed the Greeks had withdrawn from battle to return to their homes. The goddess Athena, who was the patron Goddess of the Athenians and protector of the Greeks during the Trojan War, brought forth from the sea two great serpents to kill Laocoön and his two sons, to prevent the priest from saving Troy.

Without Laocoön to warn the city of Troy, the Trojans misinterpreted this omen of the great serpents killing Laocoön and his two sons, and assumed the horse to be a tribute from the Greeks and brought it into the city, past all their defences.  At night after the Trojans celebrated their supposed victory and had fallen asleep, Ulysses and his best Greek soldiers came out from inside their hiding place in the giant horse, opened the gates to the Greek army which had sailed back in secret. Having gained entry into the city, the Greeks defeated the Trojans.

Laocoön Sculpture

The Laocoön sculpture was first documented by the writer Pliny, the Elder who saw it in the Imperial Palace of Emperor Titus. It was commissioned by the emperor in the first century A.D. and made by sculptors from Rhodes as a copy of a bronze Greek original from the 2nd century B.C.

The Laocoön sculpture was buried and lost during the turbulent times at the end of the Roman Empire. It was rediscovered in 1506 near the Domus Aurea of Nero. When the statue was discovered in a vineyard, Pope Julius II was informed. The Pope was an enthusiastic classicist and sent his court artist, Michelangelo to determine its worth and supervise the unearthing of the statue. The statue was placed on public view in a niche in the wall of the Belvedere Garden at the Vatican, which is now part of the Vatican Museums

This heroic nude with powerful muscular and accurate anatomical detail was much admired by many Renaissance artist and influenced many of their work. Michelangelo made many drawings of the Laocoön and His Sons. Michelangelo started working on his Vatican frescoes in the Sistine Chapel just two years after studying this statue.

Laocoon and His Sons

The Influence of the Laocoön

The influence of the Laocoön is evidenced in many of Michelangelo’s sculptures, such as the “Rebellious Slave” and the “Dying Slave”, created for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Another critical Renaissance painter, Raphael used the face of Laocoön for his portrait of Homer in his Parnassus painting in the Raphael Rooms, expressing blindness rather than pain.

The sculpture also influenced many French artists when it was seized and taken to Paris by Napoleon Bonaparte after his conquest of Italy in 1799. It was installed in a place of honour in the Musée Napoléon at the Louvre for nearly 15 years. Following the fall of Napoleon, it was returned by the Allies to the Vatican in 1816.

We can also see the influence of this statues reputation in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Ebenezer Scrooge describes himself as “making a perfect Laocoön of himself with his stockings”, a reference to the statue, as Scrooge is in such a great rush to get dressed that he becomes entangled in his clothes.

Laocoön

Homer does not mention the story of Laocoön in his telling of the story of Troy, but it was the subject of a tragedy, now lost, by Sophocles and was cited by other Greek writers. The most famous account is in Virgil’s Aeneid where Laocoön was a priest of Poseidon or Neptune for the Romans, was killed with both his sons after attempting to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse by striking it with a spear.

Virgil gives Laocoön the famous line:

“Do not trust the Horse, Trojans
Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts.”

This line is the source of the saying: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”

In Aeneid, Virgil describes the circumstances of Laocoön’s death:

“At the same time, he stretched forth to tear the knots with his hands
his fillets soaked with saliva and black venom
at the same time he lifted to heaven horrendous cries:
like the bellowing when a wounded bull has fled from the altar
and has shaken the ill-aimed axe from its neck.”

The Moral of the Laocoön Story

In Virgil’s version of the story, the deaths were interpreted by the Trojans as proof that the horse was a sacred object. In Sophocles’ version of the story, Laocoön was a priest of Apollo who should have been celibate but had married against his vow. The serpents killed only the two sons, leaving Laocoön himself alive to suffer. In other versions of Laocoön’ story, the snakes were sent by Poseidon to killed him for having committed blasphemy by making love with his wife in the presence of a cult image in a sanctuary.

The different versions have somewhat different moral endings. In the Roman conclusion, Laocoön was punished for being right. In the Greek ending, Laocoön was punished for doing wrong.

Exploring Ancient Greek Sculpture

Reflections

  • Is the story of Troy the most referenced story in our history?
  • Can you imagine how amazed Renaissance artists would have been at the discovery of such an ancient masterpiece?
  • What did Michelangelo feel when he first saw this sculpture?
  • How did the discovery of this ancient statue influence Michelangelo’s art?

Laocoon and His Sons

  • Title:                               Laocoön and His Sons
  • Material:                         Marble
  • Height:                           214cm
  • Date of Roman Copy:    ca.  100 CE
  • Date of Original Greek: ca. 200 BCE
  • Location of Find:           Baths of Trajan
  • Date of Find:                1506
  • Museum:                       Vatican Museums

Exploring the Vatican Museums

Exploring Italian Museums

Rome Museums and Historical Sites

Florence Museums

Milan Museums

Bologna Museums

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“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”
– Virgil

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Photo Credit: 1) By English: Hagesandros, Athenedoros, and PolydorosFrançais : Agésandros, Athanadoros et PolydoreDeutsch: Hagesandros, Athanadoros, und Polydoros (LivioAndronico (2014)) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Copy after Henri Motte. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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