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Laocoon's Influence On Renaissance Artists

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The Renaissance was indeed a proud moment in history. It was a time of the revitalization of antiquity, breakthrough scientific discoveries, and profound, inspirational artwork. The desire and urge to establish stronger connections with the classical past brought about the search and discovery of many ancient manuscripts and artworks. One of the most celebrated discoveries occurred during the height of the Renaissance: The Laocoon. Perhaps one of the world’s most famous Hellenistic sculptures, it was originally located in the palace of Titus. It was then lost for over a thousand years before its rediscovery in 1506. Pope Julius II immediately acquired it, and displayed it in the Vatican Museums. The renowned discovery of one of the few Hellenistic sculptures had a profound impact on history. Its significance is unparallel to any other piece of art. In this paper, I will discuss the significance of the Laocoon: its celebrated discovery, its ability to raise debate even in the modern times, and lastly, its influence on Renaissance artists.

The Laocoon group is a large, white, marble sculpture. Measuring 242cm in height, it is virtually life size. It was discovered in 1506, and is currently located in the Vatican Museums. Portrayed is the death of Laocoon (the high priest of Troy) and his two sons. The sculpture is viewed only from the front, and has a very central balance; Laocoon is in the center and is flanked by his two sons. The three figures are integrated together by a coiling and writhing sea serpent locking its victims in a death grip. The serpent’s head is visibly shown with its jaws open, ready to strike again into Laoocon’s lower left torso. The overall piece shows an acute attention to detail: the muscular torsos are twisted and strained, the muscles are swelling from the serpent’s bites, and the veins are throbbing with venom.

The facial features in the Laocoon Group illustrate an emotional narrative to the viewer. Laocoon’s twisted torso and unnatural position immediately illustrates extreme discomfort and pain. His neck is slightly bent, and his face is full of sorrow, pain, and suffering. His eyebrows are drooping, and a low moan escapes his slightly open mouth. Though he is full of pain, this is a not a man full or rage or anger. Rather, Laocoon realizes his imminent death, and is pleading to the Gods for mercy and help. His two sons both look up towards their father, anxiously seeking aid or signs of reassurance, but only to find him in a state of deep agony. This in turn reveals their reactions, their faces full of despair and trepidation.

Laocoon himself is portrayed in a Herculean fashion. He is extremely muscular, his biceps and abdominals are clearly defined, while his pectorals and quadrupeds are sturdy and hefty. He is seated on some robes on what appears to be the base of a column in a contrapossto position. His right leg is bent in a 90 degrees angle and slightly forward, while his left leg is extended outwards. Laocoon’s left arm is grabbing onto the serpent, while his right arm is bent behind his head.

When the statue was discovered, the right arm originally missing. Pope Julius II held a contest among sculptors, which was judged by Raphael, to determine the shape and position of the replacement arm. Though Michelangelo did not participate, he suggested that the right arm was originally bent back behind Laocoon’s shoulder. The winning design depicted the right arm in an outstretched position, and was attached to the sculpture. However, in 1957, the original right arm was found in Rome, and was in the position originally suggested by Michelangelo. The original arm is now rejoined to the statue.

The iconography and narrative of this sculpture comes straight out of a scene from Virgil’s Aeneid. According to Greek mythology, the Trojan War occurred around 1200 BC between the Greeks and the Trojans. The war dragged on for nine years, and while the Greeks ravaged the towns around Troy, they were unable to break into the heavily fortified city. Finally, the Greeks strategized a false defeat, built a giant wooden horse (secretly filled with armed forces) and offered it as a gift to the Trojans. The Trojans accepted the gift, and at night, the Greeks slipped out of the horse and opened the city, which led to the fall of Troy. Laocoon was a high priest of Troy who warned against accepting the wooden horse. Frustrated that the Trojans were ignoring his warnings, Laocoon threw a spear at the giant wooden horse, and spurned the rage of Poseidon (who, along with the other Gods favored the Greeks) to send giant sea serpents to strangle him.

One of the major significances of the Laocoon Group was the timing and effect of its celebrated discovery. Prior to its discovery, the only known records of its existence were from ancient manuscripts and records by Pliny the Elder. Buried underground for over a millennium, the Laocoon Group emerged once again after its discovery near the baths of Titus in 1506. This was during the height of the Renaissance, an era of the revitalization of the classics. Due to the strong desire to possess the great works of antiquity, its discovery was an immediate success. Discovering the Laocoon was like discovering the Titantic; an ancient treasure finally revealed after endless years of searching.

Pliny the Elder (23-79) was an ancient author and philosopher who lived from the reign of Nero to that of Vespasian. His encyclopedia, Natural History, was a collection of much of the known knowledge of his time. In it, he describes the Laocoon as “a work superior to all the pictures and bronzes of the world”. Besides giving a detailed description of the sculpture, Pliny the Elder was also in charge of placing the sculpture inside of Emperor Titus’s palace and naming it. He accredits the sculptors as Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus from the island of Rhodes. Inscriptions found at Lindus (small town in Rhodes, in southeastern Greece), date the sculptors to the period 42-21 BC.

Another major significance of the Laocoon is its ability to raise discussion and debate. One commonly debated topic is the history and authenticity of this marble group. According to Pliny’s description, the Laocoon was carved from a single piece of marble. However, the Laocoon discovered in 1506 was composed of 7 different pieces of marble. There was also the discovery of a piece of Luna marble within the group, a material not in use until Luna quarries were opened under Augustus. The use of Luna marble is also fundamentally inconsistent with Hellenistic sculptural practices. This raises a few questionable issues. First, is the marble group in the Vatican the same Laocoon Pliny was describing? Perhaps Pliny was mistaken вЂ" perhaps



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