The Joy of Museums

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Laocoön and His Sons

Laocoon and His Sons

The marble statue of Laocoön and His Sons has been one of the most famous ancient sculptures ever since it was placed on public display in the Vatican. The sculpture 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.

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 a giant 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 The giant wooden horse left behind by the Greeks looked like a gift to the Trojans and they believed the Greeks had withdrawn from battle to return to their homes.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.

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

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 assumed 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.

The Laocoön sculpture, which was 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 the Rhodes sculptors as a copy of a bronze original from the 2nd century B.C.

At the end of the Roman Empire, the statue was lost. It was rediscovered in 1506 near the Domus Aurea of Nero. When the statue was first 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 for public viewing 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 anatomical detail was greatly admired by many Renaissance artist and influenced 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 Pio-Clementino Inv1059-1064-1067 n6

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 key 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 see further influences 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 of Laocoön, as Scrooge is in such a great rush to get dressed that he becomes entangled in his clothes

Essential Facts:

  • 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

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“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Michelangelo

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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 2) By English: Agesander, Athenedoros and PolydorusFrançais : Agésandros, Athanadoros et Polydore (Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009)) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Copy after Henri Motte. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons