This article will begin in an unorthodox manner. It is commonplace for articles with questions like this in their title to offer no definitive answer until the conclusion or even worse no definitive answer at all. This article will do the exact opposite and answer that no, Laocoon and his Sons is not antiquity’s greatest sculpture. Besides, taste in art is a highly subjective matter and who can even claim to know antiquity’s greatest artwork?
So, no, Laocoon and his Sons is not antiquity’s greatest artwork and we can reasonably make the case that no artwork could possibly qualify for this title. However, there were a few people in history who believed that this was not just antiquity’s greatest artwork, but also the greatest artwork to have been ever created. The first of these was active in Rome 2,000 years ago and his name was Pliny the Elder. He wrote that Laocoon is a work “that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of statuary”.
Laocoon And His Sons: The Myth Behind The Sculpture
Pliny mentions that the sculpture called Laocoon and his Sons was exhibited at the palace of Emperor Titus. It was made from a single block of marble by a trio of Rhodian sculptors; Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus. The sculpture depicted a theme drawn from the epic cycle and more specifically the Trojan War.
In mythology, Laocoon was a Trojan priest who warned his fellow Trojans not to take the legendary Trojan horse into their city. Finally, the Trojans took the giant wooden effigy into Troy believing it to be a gift from the retreating Greek army. In reality, the Greeks had never left and the horse was filled with armed soldiers who came out at night and opened the gates leading to the fall of Troy.
However, Laocoon did not live to see the city’s fall. His attempt to warn his fellows meddled with the plans of the gods. To punish him, Athena sent two giant serpents to assassinate him and his two sons. The death of Laocoon was a show of pain, despair, and anguish. Virgil (Aeneid, II.195-227) describes him screaming as he is strangled and bitten to death unable to save his sons who die beside him.
Pliny is the first and only ancient author to mention the sculpture. The next time that someone talked about it was in 1506 when Felice de Fredis discovered an elegant white statue group in his vineyard. Right away, he notified Pope Julius II who sent Giuliano da Sangallo to inspect the discovery. Michelangelo was also called to examine the sculpture. The great painter and sculptor was impressed by the way the figures were given form and we can find traces of this influence in his sculptures of slaves (the Rebellious and the Dying). Besides, there is an entertaining but, at least in my opinion, implausible theory that Michelangelo actually forged and buried the sculpture for his own reasons. Da Sangalo immediately identified what he saw as the Laocoon described by Pliny.
The pope soon acquired the marble sculpture and placed it in the Vatican’s Belvedere Garden for the public to admire.
Changes In The Sculpture’s Appearance
The sculpture was missing some parts, most notably Laocoon’s right hand. According to the first Art Historian, Giorgio Vasari, the Pope ordered an informal contest to be held to see who would restore the sculpture’s missing parts. The judge of this legendary contest was Raphael. Michelangelo suggested that the right arm should be bent back over the shoulder, but the winner was Jacopo Sansovino who created an outstretched hand that was never attached to the original. In 1532, Michelangelo’s pupil when Giovanni Antonio Montorsoli added to the original statue his version of an outstretched hand. Antonio Canova and Agostino Cornacchini also restored other missing parts of the statue group in the next centuries.
In 1798 Napoleon’s army took Laocoon to Paris. The sculpture returned to the Vatican in 1816, after Napoleon’s 1815 crushing defeat at Waterloo.
On the eve of the 20th century, Ludwig Pollak an archaeologist and art dealer discovered an arm in the place where Laocoon and his Sons had been discovered four centuries ago. Noone recognized where it belonged until 1957 when it was recognized as the missing right hand of the Laocoon and added to the original sculpture. After four long centuries, the hand that Montorsoli had designed was replaced. The final intervention came during the 1980s when the sculpture was freed from all the post-classical restorations that had changed its appearance.
Further restoration work until the present has found that the statue group was carved from at least seven blocks of marble disproving Pliny’s who claimed that it was made from just one.
Although it is commonly accepted that the Laocoon at the Vatican is the one described by Pliny, there are multiple theories surrounding the sculpture and its discovery like the one claiming that Michelangelo created the group for his own reasons. The most popular theories among scholars are either that it is a marble copy of a bronze Hellenistic original commissioned by Tiberius or an original artwork of the Early Roman Imperial era in the style of the Hellenistic Baroque.
Making Antiquity’s Greatest Sculpture
The belief that taste in art is subjective was not always a common understanding amongst the circles concerned with the study and production of art. The aesthetic philosophers of the 19th century wrote lengthy treatises looking to establish what is beautiful and what is art, using logic. Especially in Germany, aestheticians worked tirelessly to discover the formula that would solve the problem of beauty. Although they disagreed on many things, most of them agreed on one; that ancient Greece was the civilization that had birthed the highest form of art. And amongst all this high art, many looked at Laocoon as the greatest artwork of the classical civilization.
All these thinkers shared a common intellectual ancestry that can be easily traced back to the 18th century and more specifically to Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768). Winckelmann was a well-educated German, obsessed with ancient art. He had traveled throughout Italy and had direct experience of ancient art.
In his Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1755), Winckelmann laid down the fundaments of what became known as the Classical Ideal in art. In this work, Winckelmann described multiple ancient artworks, but a prominent place possessed Laocoon whom Winckelmann called amongst others “a perfect Rule for art”. Winckelmann’s description of the Laocoon passed down in history. More specifically, the German, considered Laocoon the embodiment of his classical ideal which he described as “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”. Winckelmann wrote that:
” Such a soul is depicted in the countenance of the Laocoon, under sufferings the most intense. Nor is it depicted in the countenance only: the agony betrayed in every nerve and muscle, — we almost fancy we could detect it in the painful contraction of the abdomen alone, without looking at the face and other parts of the body, — this agony, I say, is yet expressed with no violence in the face and attitude. He raises no terrible cry, as Virgil sings of his Laocoon. This would not be possible, from the opening of the mouth, which denotes rather an anxious and oppressed sigh, as described by Sadolet. Bodily anguish and moral greatness are defused in equal measure through the whole structure of the figure being, as it were, balanced against each other […] His sufferings pierce us to the soul, but we are tempted to envy the great man his power of endurance.”
But he did not stop there. He also exalted the artist who made the sculpture believing that only someone who has internalized the greatness of a great civilization can produce such a high artwork as Laocoon:
“To express so noble a soul far outruns the constructive art of natural beauty. The artist must have felt within himself the mental greatness which he has impressed upon his marble. Greece united in one person artist and philosopher, and had more than one Metrodorus. Wisdom joined hands with art and inspired its figures with more than ordinary souls.”
Winckelmann’s writings had a profound effect on romanticizing classical art. The Laocoon was idealized beyond measure and no one would ever look at this sculpture the same way as before.
Lessing And Goethe
Another German, called Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) read Winkelmann and found himself disagreeing with his description of the Laocoon. His disagreement was so great, that in 1767 he wrote an essay called Laocoön. Lessing troubled himself with one question: Why does Virgil’s Laocoon screams in anguish while the sculpture of Laocoon and his sons barely betray a sigh from his open mouth?
The answer he conceived was that the visual and the literary arts employ different means to attain beauty. If the sculpture of Laocoon screamed, it would be faithful to Virgil’s description but would be too terrible to look at. Laocoon has to remain silent in order to preserve the calm beauty that a sculpture has to radiate.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the next German to publish an essay under the name of Laocoon in 1798. Goethe did not have anything truly original to contribute to the debate. Nevertheless, he studied Laocoon in an attempt to spread the values and ideals of Hellenism to his fellow countrymen and it seems that he partly succeeded.
From Blake To Modernism
Laocoon had become a symbol of the spirit of ancient Greece. Few other Greek artworks could claim to be as influential as this one. The classical ideal remained prevalent for decades until the coming of modernism and the challenge of the authority of antiquity.
Laocoon lost authority alongside the classical ideal but the sculpture’s influence never completely faded. It is impossible to count the number of art students, even today, who have sketched the Laocoon as part of their studies.
Modern art did not forget Laocoon and his Sons. It rather appropriated its image and used it to debate antiquity, the theories of classicists like Winckelmann, and question the idea of the beautiful.
This appropriation of Laocoon began among others with a man who was years ahead of his time, William Blake. Blake created a sketch of the famous Hellenistic sculpture. Interestingly, however, he decided to claim that it did not belong in the Greek but in the Hebrew tradition. He claimed that this was the reproduction of an original statue depicting Jehovah and his two sons, Satan and Adam. Blake wanted to liberate art from the constraints placed on Classical tradition which pursued imitation rather than expression or spiritualism. The Laocoon’s reinterpretation was part of this effort that would only grow as time passed.
Laocoon In Art
Aside from the ideological narratives that became attached to Laocoon, the sculpture had a significant influence on the arts. We already mentioned Michelangelo’s fascination which was echoed in his sculptural activity but also in the corporeal forms of his painting. Italian, and not only, artists of the Renaissance and the Baroque were also particularly interested in Laocoon’s expression of pain and anguish idealized through a realism taking a uniquely recognizable form.
Interestingly, the sculpture at first became known in Europe through miniature sculpture copies by Baccio Bandinelli and the engravings of Hans Brosamer, a German who had never even seen the original sculpture. The engravings became extremely popular during the 16th century even though as you can see, were completely drawn out of Brosamer’s imagination.
One can easily trace Laocoon’s influence on Titian’s Averoldi Altarpiece of 1520–22. Titian also made a humorous print presenting Laocoon and his sons as apes. Although this seems to have been either ridiculing the copies of Bandinelli or contemporary discussions regarding the relationship between man and ape, the sketch was ahead of its time. Had Titian made the same sketch a few centuries later he could have been labeled a romantic rebel, which only goes to show that art is not independent of its historical context.
Peter Paul Rubens also referenced the Laocoon in many of his figures, most notably in his Descent from the Cross. Then we also have Blake whose Laocoon was already discussed. But that is not the end of the road for Laocoon’s influence. The sculpture kept exercising its authority over the art world for centuries. In many ways it still does.
Laocoon And His Sons: Antiquity’s Greatest Sculpture?
Does the Laocoon group in the Vatican possess a quality that the Venus of Melo, the Hermes of Praxiteles, the Nike of Samothrace, or any other famous Greek sculpture doesn’t? If the answer to this question has to come from a purely aesthetic basis, then the answer that was given at the beginning of this article remains unchanged.
But let’s ask ourselves this: What makes an artwork great? Is it an abstract aesthetic quality, an innate ability to inspire powerful emotions? Is it simply a matter of popularity whereby the most famous becomes de facto great? Or is it the artwork’s connection to a specific space, time, and people? If you ask me, it is probably a combination of the above. The Laocoon is great because it is a remnant of the past that made it to the present. Because people throughout the ages never stopped discussing and admiring it. From Pliny to Michelangelo and from Winckelmann to Blake, the Laocoon was never just a statue. It was a fragment of history. As such, it was great at the time of Pliny and remains great today. Is it Antiquity’s greatest though? That’s probably a title far greater than any artwork deserves.