Giacobbe Giusti: ‘Laocoön and his sons’

Giacobbe Giusti: ‘Laocoön and his sons’


Laocoon and His Sons.jpg
Laocoön and his sons, also known as the Laocoön Group. Marble, copy after an Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506.

Laocoön and His Sons

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Laocoön and His Sons
Laocoon and His Sons.jpg
Material marble
Dimensions 208 cm × 163 cm × 112 cm (6 ft 10 in × 5 ft 4 in × 3 ft 8 in)[1]
Location Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Laocoön’s head

The statue of Laocoön and His Sons (Italian: Gruppo del Laocoonte), also called the Laocoön Group, has been one of the most famous ancient sculptures ever since it was excavated in Rome in 1506 and placed on public display in the Vatican,[2] where it remains. Exceptionally, it is very likely to be the same object as a statue praised in the highest terms by the main Roman writer on art, Pliny the Elder.[3] The figures are near life-size and the group is a little over 2 m (6 ft 7 in) in height, showing the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents.[1]

The group has been “the prototypical icon of human agony” in Western art,[4] and unlike the agony often depicted in Christian art showing the Passion of Jesus and martyrs, this suffering has no redemptive power or reward.[5] The suffering is shown through the contorted expressions of the faces (Charles Darwin pointed out that Laocoön’s bulging eyebrows are physiologically impossible), which are matched by the struggling bodies, especially that of Laocoön himself, with every part of his body straining.[6]

Pliny attributes the work, then in the palace of Emperor Titus, to three Greek sculptors from the island of Rhodes: Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus, but does not give a date or patron. In style it is considered “one of the finest examples of the Hellenistic baroque” and certainly in the Greek tradition,[7] but it is not known whether it is an original work or a copy of an earlier sculpture, probably in bronze, or made for a Greek or Roman commission. The view that it is an original work of the 2nd century BC now has few if any supporters, although many still see it as a copy of such a work made in the early Imperial period, probably of a bronze original.[8] Others see it as probably an original work of the later period, continuing to use the Pergamese style of some two centuries earlier. In either case, it was probably commissioned for the home of a wealthy Roman, possibly of the Imperial family. Various dates have been suggested for the statue, ranging from about 200 BC to the 70s AD,[9] though “a Julio-Claudian date [between 27 BC and 68 AD] … is now preferred”.[10]

Although mostly in excellent condition for an excavated sculpture, the group is missing several parts, and analysis suggests that it was remodelled in ancient times as well as undergoing a number of restorations since it was excavated.[11] It is on display in the Museo Pio-Clementino, a part of the Vatican Museums


Oblique view

The other oblique view

The group as it was between c. 1540 and 1957, with Laocoön’s extended arm; the sons’ restored arms were removed in the 1980s.

The story of Laocoön, a Trojan priest, came from the Greek Epic Cycle on the Trojan Wars, though it is not mentioned by Homer. It had been the subject of a tragedy, now lost, by Sophocles and was mentioned by other Greek writers, though the events around the attack by the serpents vary considerably. The most famous account of these is now in Virgil‘s Aeneid (see the Aeneid quotation at the entry Laocoön), but this dates from between 29 and 19 BC, which is possibly later than the sculpture. However, some scholars see the group as a depiction of the scene as described by Virgil.[12]

In Virgil Laocoön was a priest of Poseidon who was killed with both his sons after attempting to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse by striking it with a spear. In Sophocles, on the other hand, he was a priest of Apollo, who should have been celibate but had married. The serpents killed only the two sons, leaving Laocoön himself alive to suffer.[13] In other versions he was killed for having had sex with his wife in the temple of Poseidon, or simply making a sacrifice in the temple with his wife present.[14] In this second group of versions, the snakes were sent by Poseidon[15] and in the first by Poseidon and Athena, or Apollo, and the deaths were interpreted by the Trojans as proof that the horse was a sacred object. The two versions have rather different morals: Laocoön was either punished for doing wrong, or for being right.[7]

The snakes are depicted as both biting and constricting, and are probably intended as venomous, as in Virgil.[16] Pietro Aretino thought so, praising the group in 1537:

…the two serpents, in attacking the three figures, produce the most striking semblances of fear, suffering and death. The youth embraced in the coils is fearful; the old man struck by the fangs is in torment; the child who has received the poison, dies.[17]

In at least one Greek telling of the story the oldest son is able to escape, and the composition seems to allow for that possibility.[18]


Ancient times

The style of the work is agreed to be that of the Hellenistic “Pergamene baroque” which arose in Greek Asia Minor around 200 BC, and whose best known undoubtedly original work is the Pergamon Altar (dated ca 180-160 BC, now Berlin).[19] Here the figure of Alcyoneus is shown in a pose and situation (including serpents) which is very similar to those of Laocoön, though the style is “looser and wilder in its principles” than the altar.[20] The execution of the Laocoön is extremely fine throughout, and the composition very carefully calculated, even though it appears that the group underwent adjustments in ancient times. The two sons are rather small in scale compared to their father,[20] but this adds to the impact of the central figure. The fine white marble used is often thought to be Greek, but has not been identified by analysis.


In Pliny’s survey of Greek and Roman stone sculpture in his encyclopedic Natural History (XXXVI, 37), he says:

….in the case of several works of very great excellence, the number of artists that have been engaged upon them has proved a considerable obstacle to the fame of each, no individual being able to engross the whole of the credit, and it being impossible to award it in due proportion to the names of the several artists combined. Such is the case with the Laocoön, for example, in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of [bronze] statuary. It is sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the serpents with their marvellous folds. This group was made in concert by three most eminent artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, natives of Rhodes[21]

It is generally accepted that this is the same work as is now in the Vatican.[22] It is now very often thought that the three Rhodians were copyists, perhaps of a bronze sculpture from Pergamon, created around 200 BC.[23][24] It is noteworthy that Pliny does not address this issue explicitly, in a way that suggests “he regards it as an original”.[25] Pliny states that it was located in the palace of the emperor Titus, and it is possible that it remained in the same place until 1506 (see “Findspot” section below). He also asserts that it was carved from a single piece of marble, though the Vatican work comprises at least seven interlocking pieces.[26][27] The phrase translated above as “in concert” (de consilii sententia) is regarded by some as referring to their commission rather than the artists method of working, giving in Nigel Spivey‘s translation: ” [the artists] at the behest of council designed a group…”, which Spivey takes to mean that the commission was by Titus, possibly even advised by Pliny among other savants.[28]

The same three artists’ names, though in a different order (Athenodoros, Agesander, and Polydorus), with the names of their fathers, are inscribed on one of the sculptures at Tiberius’s villa at Sperlonga (though they may predate his ownership),[29] but it seems likely that not all the three masters were the same individuals.[30] Though broadly similar in style, many aspects of the execution of the two groups are drastically different, with the Laocoon group of much higher quality and finish.[31]

It used to be thought that honorific inscriptions found at Lindos in Rhodes dated Agesander and Athenedoros, recorded as priests, to a period after 42 BC, making the years 42 to 20 BC the most likely date for the Laocoön group’s creation in the view of some scholars.[23] However the Sperlonga inscription, which also gives the fathers of the artists, makes it clear that at least Agesander is a different individual from the priest of the same name recorded at Lindos, though very possibly related. The names may have recurred across generations, a Rhodian habit, within the context of a family workshop (which might well have included the adoption of promising young sculptors).[32] Altogether eight “signatures” (or labels) of an Athenodoros are found on sculptures or bases for them, five of these from Italy. Some, including that from Sperlonga, record his father as Agesander.[33] The whole question remains the subject of academic debate.


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