Visitors to the Pius-Clementine Museum at the Vatican often stop in their tracks when they first glimpse it. Located in the Octagonal Court, the sculpture “Laocoön and His Sons” depicts a shocking scene: Sea serpents bind a terrified man and his two young sons, who struggle in vain against the writhing coils. Rearing back in a futile gesture to free himself, Laocoön is shown at the moment when one of the snakes is poised to deliver a strike.
A study of horror in marble, the work has been described by British classicist Nigel Spivey as “the prototypical icon of human agony” in Western art. The grim story of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons varies across classical sources, but one of the most familiar is that recounted by Virgil in the Aeneid, completed in 19 B.C.
In Book II of the epic, which details the end of the Trojan War, Laocoön suspects that the wooden horse sent by the Greeks is a trap. After striking the horse with a spear, Laocoön and his sons are seized by sea serpents that drag them down to their deaths, which the Trojans interpret as divine punishment. To appease the gods, they drag the horse into their city. (Archaeologists spent decades looking for the lost city of Troy.)
Find fit for a pope
The discovery of the Laocoön grouping was one of the most momentous of the Renaissance era. It had a lasting impact on sculptors, most notably Michelangelo. In January 1506 a landowner, Felice de Fredis, ordered construction work in a vineyard on his property on the slopes of Rome’s Esquiline Hill. Finding Roman coins, inscriptions, and statues was common for anyone digging in Roman soil, but the workers’ discovery on January 14 was extraordinary: a sunken chamber containing a group of exquisite and sizable marble sculptures.
The sculpture’s figures were remarkable but not completely intact; the adult male figure was missing his right arm, and various fragments were missing from the two children. They had clearly lain hidden for centuries, but it did not take long for news of the discovery to reach Pope Julius II.
A keen collector of treasures from Rome’s classical past, the pope sent a delegation to inspect the find. He sent his architect Giuliano da Sangallo, future cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, and the sculptor Michelangelo. After gazing upon the discovery, the men quickly identified it. Sangallo, his son later recorded, immediately declared: “This is the Laocoön of which Pliny wrote.”
During the Renaissance, both artists and scholars revered the classical age and sought to bring its values forward to their own time. Educated people like Sangallo were familiar with Pliny the Elder’s first-century A.D. Natural History, a compendium of knowledge covering history, science, and the arts. In it, Pliny describes a sculpture “above all that the arts. . . have produced. Out of a single block of marble, the craftsmen of Rhodes— Hagesander, Polydoros and Athenadoros—designed a group of Laocoön and his sons, with snakes entwining them.”
Call to arms
By March 1506 the work was moved to the Vatican’s Belvedere Courtyard, newly designed by Donato Bramante. Despite the quick identification of the “Laocoon,” questions lingered. The sculpture matched Pliny’s descriptions in many major aspects except one: It was carved not from a single block of marble but from as many as eight different pieces. Scholars puzzled over the identity of its maker, when it was made, and why artists would be drawn to depict such anguish.
As part of their analysis, artists proposed different orientations for the missing pieces of the grouping. Overseen by Bramante, a contest was held in 1510 to propose the best model for Laocoön’s missing right arm. Michelangelo suggested it be bent back toward the shoulder to indicate the priest’s frenzied attempt to free himself. Raphael, Michelangelo’s rival and judge of the contest, picked a different pose, one with an outstretched arm, which was incorporated when the work was restored in 1520. (Raphael, the 'Prince of Painters,' had a long rivalry with Michelangelo.)
Made by Michelangelo?
Michelangelo’s close involvement with the sculpture and its evident influence on his later works have always introduced a touch of intrigue into the discovery. Columbia University art historian Lynn Catterson has even advanced the theory that the sculptor of the “Laocoön” was, in fact, Michelangelo himself.
Catterson looks to a 1501 sketch by Michelangelo, which, she argues, shows stylistic similarities with the sculpture. Catterson contends that the Tuscan genius secretly created the sculptural grouping, which was subsequently “found.” Critics say that huge logistical and financial obstacles make such a scheme improbable. Most historians accept that the sculpture is either the direct product—or a Roman-era copy—of the Hellenistic era when Greek sculpture reached a zenith of dynamism from the fourth to first centuries B.C.
Pliny’s encyclopedic work furnishes crucial clues: Natural History was dedicated to the Roman emperor Titus, who ruled A.D. 79-81. The grounds of Titus’s palace included the Gardens of Maecenas and the site where the sculpture was found in 1506.
Historians struggled to identify the sculptors named by Pliny, or to ascertain if they were from the era of Titus or an earlier time. In 1957 a grotto at Sperlonga on the coast near Rome was excavated. It was on the grounds of a villa used by Emperor Tiberius (r. A.D. 14-37). Inside, sculptures were found, one of which was signed with the same names Pliny records as the sculptors of the “Laocoön.”
Clearly, the sculptors lived before Titus’s time. By the time of the Sperlonga discovery, historians were familiar with the sculpture excavated in the 1880s at the second century B.C. Hellenistic site of Pergamum in Turkey, whose writhing figures match the style of the “Laocoön.” It is likely that the sculptors, inspired by the Pergamum style, created the “Laocoön” in the late first century B.C.—perhaps in the form of a marble copy of a bronze original, now lost. (Emperor Hadrian adorned his villa with works of art from all over the Roman Empire.)
Icon for the age
“Laocoön and His Sons” has meant many things to many ages. To the Romans, it represented the seeds of Rome’s founding by Aeneas. To Renaissance scholars, it exemplified the dynamism and naturalism of Hellenistic art that they so greatly admired.
The statue’s popularity continued through the centuries. Napoleon removed it from the Vatican and placed it in the Louvre in Paris in 1798. In 1816 the sculpture was returned to the Vatican.
In 1905 antiquarian Ludwig Pollak discovered a marble arm in a sculpture workshop near the spot where the “Laocoön” was found. In size and style it was similar to the famous grouping.
In 1957 the Vatican Museums’ authorities finally announced that the fragment was likely to be Laocoön’s famous missing arm, and the fragment was attached to the piece. The arm is bent back—as, 450 years before, Michelangelo had suggested it should be.