Laocoon and his sons: the ultimate expression of suffering


Everything about the sculpture is both larger than life and difficult to pin down. Thought to have once adorned the palace of Roman Emperor Titus in the first century AD, the sculpture has escaped the sight of history for centuries. His appearance was barely guessable from the lavish praise that the Roman writer Pliny the Elder had showered on him in his collection of knowledge, Natural History. Praising it as “a work that can be considered preferable to any other production of the art of painting or painting. [bronze] statuary “, Pliny testifies that the sculpture was” carved from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the snakes with their marvelous folds “and that it was the work of three legendary Rhodesian sculptors Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodorus What is not clear in Pliny’s remarks and still remains a matter of speculation to this day is whether the sculpture he saw was an original creation or a copy, as some believe it, of a long lost masterpiece.

Carefully carved

What we do know is that Pliny’s overwhelming esteem for the sculpture still resonated in the minds of those who accidentally stumbled upon her buried in a vineyard in February 1506. After learning that a handful of classical sculptures had been found, Pope Julius II sent a team of experts to supervise their excavations. A young sculptor by the name of Michelangelo, who had recently completed a daring and very stammering statue of David in Florence, as well as Lorenzo di Medici’s favorite architect, Giuliano da Sangallo, were present for the painstaking exhumation. Also present was Giuliano’s 11-year-old son, Francesco, who would become a renowned sculptor himself.

Remembering the legendary dig decades later, the then 70-year-old Francesco remembers being right at the heart of the action. “I went down to where the statues were,” Francesco remembers in a letter, “when immediately my father said:” This is the Laocoon, of which Pliny mentions “. Then they dug the larger hole so they could remove the statue. As soon as it was visible, everyone started to draw, while discussing old things… “

That the sculpture left an indelible impression, too, on Michelangelo’s imagination is evident from the later sculptures of the Renaissance master. It is impossible to look at the posture of The Dying Slave by Michelangelo, for example, created seven years after witnessing the recovery of Laocoon and his sons, without marking the parallels in the pose and the sublimated emotion. More immediately, parallels between the muscular manners of ancient sculpture and the aspects of the frescoes that Michelangelo was to design on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel just two years after the excavation of Laocoon have been suggested.

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