At the time Laoccoön and His Sons was sculpted, Rome was gaining strength and started a project that would continue for over 500 years. And, as the story goes, the finishing touch on Laocoön and His Sons culminated in a centuries-long practical joke that Michelangelo played on the Roman art scene. As an official tour guide in Rome, I’m pleased to explain the creation of Laocoön and His Sons, one of the most famous works of art inside of the Vatican Museums, and why it’s still important today.
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At the beggining of Rome’s large excavation project, they pulled amazing sculptures out of the ground and when Laocoön and His Sons (also called the Laocoön Group) was unearthed in 1506, Michelangelo was the first person on the scene. You may remember Michelangelo from this. Or from this. Or maybe even from this.
The complexity of Michelangelo’s artwork was largely due to his exposure to ancient Roman and Greek artwork like the Laocoön Group. This artwork would not be rivaled, in terms of passion, until the High Art Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Who is Laocoön and what happened to him?
Pliny tells us that the Laocoön Group was created by three sculptures from Rhodes: Polydoros, Athanadoros and Hagesandros. The sculpture is named after the high priest of Troy who predicted the tragedy of the Trojan horse. The story varies depending on which poet, but Virgil’s version is very popular. Apparently, Laocoön and his two sons were killed by snakes. Why were Laocoön and his sons attacked by snakes? Well, they threw a spear at the Trojan house in an attempt to uncover the plan.
In other versions, Laocoön was left to live after watching his two sons die, leaving him to live out his life alone with the painful memory. The sculpture is a sophisticated tangle of three people, Laocoön and his two sons, as well as the snakes. They twist and contort together portraying a dramatic final scene ending in death.
Laocoön and His Sons Art Style
Nancy and Andrew Ramage, in their 4th edition book Roman Artwork, place emphasis on the dramatic action. “To show human expression, the eyes are cut deeply, the mouth open, the face twisted, the hair disheveled. Deep drilling to make heavy shadows is somewhat akin to the use of make-up in the modern theater.”
The artist’s major goal is to cast a shadow over the fact that the sculpture is a block of stone taken from a mountain. They want the onlooker to only see the story and dramatization. If the sculpture is misshapen in just one place, the entire Group will look unnatural to the viewer and the focus will shift from the story to the imperfections. Then, it falls like a house of cards.
Laocoön’s Famous Arm
When the sculpture was excavated in 1506, Laocoön himself was missing his right arm. You could imagine Michelangelo raising his hand yelling “pick me, pick me” when an artist was being selected to design and attach a new arm. How do you even know what the arm would look like without seeing the original?
A competition was held to determine who would design Laocoön’s missing arm. Michelangelo submitted a version of the arm that bent backward. Another artist, Jacopo Sansovino, won the contest, and they attached his arm to the sculpture. The focus shifted to this unnatural arm and destroyed the beauty of the Group. Michelangelo was so convinced he was correct that when he frescoed the Last Judgement, he showed Jesus Christ with his arm bent back over his shoulder in a sweeping motion, exactly like his version of the Laocoön arm.
Michelangelo’s Addition to Laocoön and His Sons
In 1906, an archeologist found a bent arm lying around in a builder’s yard and delivered it to the Vatican Museums. Fifty years later, they found it and attached it to the Laocoön Group. It didn’t take long for people to notice the similarities between the Last Judgement arm and the new Laocoön arm and Michelangelo’s practical joke came to fruition after 400 years of careful planning.
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