Pangs piercing every muscle, every labouring nerve
February 7, 2014 6:58 PM   Subscribe

In The Natural History, Pliny the Elder mentioned "the Laocoön [...]* in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of statuary." Pliny ascribed the sculpture to three sculptors from Rhodes, Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydoros; it is possible that they (or some of their descendants) were also responsible for a cluster of similarly-themed statues found in the 1950s at Sperlonga. In any event, the Laocoön was discovered in 1506 and purchased by Pope Julius II.

The Digital Sculpture Project has one of the best online accounts of the Laocoön, including a 3D visualization and a chronology of the extensive attempts over the years to restore the fragmented statue it to its original state. Its current appearance dates only to 1957, when Laocoön's bent arm was reattached; earlier reconstructions, like this early modern wax copy, posited that the arm was straight. The statue is currently housed in the Pio Clementino Museum.

The Laocoön's influence can be found everywhere from El Greco to William Blake; immediately after its unearthing, the sculpture's reputation was soon such that Titian targeted it for mockery. Michelangelo, who confirmed the statue's identification, reworked it for his own uses. By the eighteenth century, J. J. Winckelmann (source of this post's title) and G. E. Lessing, both struck by the statue's representation of physical agony, were debating its significance for aesthetics. (As it turns out, early modern artists found this suffering inspiring, not least for the problems it posed for the visual arts.) The sculpture's power still resonates with contemporary artists.

* Although by 1506 the Laocoön legend would have been most familiar from Book Two of the Aeneid, it had been extremely popular in Greek antiquity.
posted by thomas j wise (22 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
He was changed to a woman in an R.E.M. song.
posted by steinsaltz at 7:09 PM on February 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Although by 1506 the Laocoön legend would have been most familiar from Book Two of the Aeneid

My dad used Pharr's edition of the Aeneid in high school, as did I (there must be another version that gets used, if only to have books 7-12). We figured this out because he recognised the picture of the sculpture of Laocoön (which is not this sculpture).
posted by hoyland at 7:23 PM on February 7, 2014

I thought the best shot of 28 Days Later was the under appreciated lighting flash across a copy of the Laocoon in a dark hallway, considering the subject matter and all.
posted by The Whelk at 7:49 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

The impact of this sculpture when you encounter it at the Vatican Museums is simply stunning, overwhelming. I've had the good fortune to see it there twice; once at age 18, the second time three years ago with my wife, hunting down its alcove in the octagonal court with great anticipation to show it off to her. It lives up to the hype.

(Also, hoyland, I used the Pharr Aeneid, thirty years ago, and I would have sworn the picture was of this selfsame Laocoon. Do you have any more detail on that?)
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 8:12 PM on February 7, 2014

The Laocoon was the first piece of art that I studied in school and then got to see in person.

As such it will also hold a special place in my heart despite the fact that Greco-Roman sculpture doesn't interest me all that much.

And, yes, basically every good thing Michelango ever did is owed to the influence of this sculpture. The only sculpture that has affected me as much in person is the Pieta.
posted by Sara C. at 8:15 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

The story in the Aeneid is bloodcurdling; I'd forgotten that afterwards, the snakes slither in to curl up at the feet of the goddess. It's all about not dissing Her.
posted by Anitanola at 8:21 PM on February 7, 2014

(Also, hoyland, I used the Pharr Aeneid, thirty years ago, and I would have sworn the picture was of this selfsame Laocoon. Do you have any more detail on that?)

I just had my brother check (as he has a copy of Pharr) and it does seem to be the same, with the pictures taken from a different angle. Apparently that image is not quite as seared into my brain as I thought it was. There are only a handful of things I remember from the Aeneid: the opening lines, Laocoön, the line about the Trojan fathers looking down from the walls and anytime two people duck into a building (or cave) in the rain, they've having sex.*

(Or there are two suspiciously similar sculptures in the Vatican Museums, which I haven't been to--my family are the sort of people who decide to skip the Vatican Museums to go look for the giant model of Rome David Macaulay stands next to).

*I guess this happens in a Woody Allen movie and the Latin teacher was convinced it was an intentional Aeneid reference. But none of us had ever seen whatever movie it was.
posted by hoyland at 8:34 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hoyland, it's Manhattan, and IIRC they don't have sex, at least not in that scene. The building they run into is the Natural History Museum. I think maybe they kiss in the scene in question (though I could be confusing it for a scene between the same actors in Annie Hall), and it's definitely a "meet cute" kind of moment, as such things go in Woody Allen movies.

Also The Aeneid seems a little high-falutin for Woody Allen. Latin isn't part of the standard US curriculum in the way it is in the UK.
posted by Sara C. at 8:43 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Whoa. There was a reproduction of this in the entryway of my junior high school.
posted by brundlefly at 9:58 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Bear in mind of course these statues would have been painted to make them more "realistic" in their day... the original effect would have been quite different I think.. I wonder how much our adoration is due to the lovely surface quality of polished marble...? Henry Moore preferred things like the ancient Cycladic sculptures... or African traditional sculpture...
posted by anguspodgorny at 9:59 PM on February 7, 2014

I wonder how much our adoration is due to the lovely surface quality of polished marble...?

Unlikely in this particular case. The revolutionary thing about the Laocoon is the postures of Laocoon and his sons and the emotion depicted.

I'm sure one could find an example of a sculpture admired for its marble-white polish, but this isn't it.
posted by Sara C. at 10:08 PM on February 7, 2014

I remember sitting in high school Latin class, translating passages from the Aeneid, and being mesmerized by a photo of this sculpture on the page. One of my favorite lines from the Aeneid is Laocoon's, and this is by far the sculpture I most desire to see.

With all luck, finally visiting Rome this summer. It will be hard to appreciate the other parts of the Vatican until I see the Laocoon Group.
posted by sbutler at 10:34 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is there a reproduction in the lobby of the renovated Rijksmuseum as well?
posted by infini at 12:51 AM on February 8, 2014

I think my point was, that since these sculptures are known to have been normally polychromed i.e. realistically painted, the whole effect would have been much different from our modern view. as discussed here. Additionally, the prevailing view in much modern criticism is that the Laocoön represents the decadence of the Roman era's wholesale copying and appropriation of earlier classical Greek sculpture as decoration for the ostentatious houses of rich Romans. In other words, my dears, not the high point of the tradition, but the "jumped the shark phase.." But sigh.. we are all Roman Imperial subjects, and our taste reflects this fact. We prefer Steven Spielberg to Ozu or Truffaut.
posted by anguspodgorny at 5:38 AM on February 8, 2014

I first encountered this sculpture in name only in 1989, in high school. I decided I'd read Ulysses. Stephan Dedalus spends a fair few lines here and there thinking about the Laocoön as he walks. It took me a while to understand that it was a sculpture and not another art form. I don't think I ever even gleaned the subject matter of the piece from the novel. Of the many references in the novel that I didn't quite get, this was the one that intrigued me the most. I went through books in the school library and the public library. I asked art teachers and literature teachers. I looked in dictionaries and encyclopedias. I never found it and until today I'd never seen it. After those few weeks of looking I dropped it.
So here it is. I'll have to spend some time considering the piece itself, but I wanted to report this really interesting gap in my education. Of course, I looked for it pre world wide web, but not only is it readily discovered online now, it also (I just now find) included in the iOS type-ahead dictionary, and having just started the Aeneid, I was bound to rediscover it one way or another this year.
posted by putzface_dickman at 6:20 AM on February 8, 2014

Hoyland, it's Manhattan, and IIRC they don't have sex, at least not in that scene.

IIRC, the point was that you're meant to conclude they had sex off-screen, like Aeneas and Dido. Or something. I've still never seen it.

Latin isn't part of the standard US curriculum in the way it is in the UK.

I think this is a time and place thing. Latin wasn't an uncommon offering in the Chicago area when I was in high school ten years ago, but when I went to college in California, it seemed that my school having offered Latin was unusual.* Latin was starting to make a comeback at the time, so I assume more schools offer it now (if the comeback didn't die with the economy). I don't think Latin's actually been de rigueur in Britain for decades. It seemingly went into precipitous decline after being dropped as an entrance requirement to study medicine. (I don't know if Latin was expected of my mom, but the number of students doing Latin GCSEs now is less than 10,000 a year. My cousins, who fit a similar academic ability and class profile to my mom, went to a school that only offered German.)

*To the point that people would try to guess what high school I went to. However, they also might have just been weird. Or I gave off a vibe that suggested I was from the Bay Area for some reason.
posted by hoyland at 6:35 AM on February 8, 2014

the whole effect would have been much different from our modern view

I get what you're saying, but, no, not in this particular case. The Laocoon is an extremely unique classical sculpture. The exciting thing about it is how it uses shape and space, not what color it is.

I'm extremely familiar with the idea that these sculptures were once painted (and I've even seen evidence of it myself on actual sculptures), but when it comes to the Laocoon, painted or not, it's a pretty exciting specimen of Roman art.
posted by Sara C. at 8:17 AM on February 8, 2014

Benjamin West's The Brazen Serpent is another painting that owes a debt to the Laocoön.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:30 AM on February 8, 2014

We had French, Latin and a choice of Greek or German at my school in Devon in the late 70s/early 80s, but it was independent (I still don't know quite what the distinctions are independent/minor public schools, and I went through that bit of the system.)

I chose Greek, because I was more curious about the ancient Greeks than I was about the modern Germans - whether this was wise, I cannot say, but it wasn't as if I was going to end up reading either Plato or Goethe in the original. Aristophanes made it worth it, as did our rather splendid Greek teacher, about whom much could but should not be written. He maintained a mischevous and pleasantly dangerous taste for boyish humour. I hope, wherever he is, he's read Courtesans and Fishcakes: that would be right up his Via Pythia.

Back at the Aeneid, which was one of the Latin set books, my edition too had the statue of Laocoon on the cover - well, you would, wouldn't you - and it certainly made an impression on my boyish mind. The sinuous coils and the face; you could reduce the statue to those and still retain greatness.
posted by Devonian at 9:49 AM on February 8, 2014

Interesting take on Michelangelo and Bandinelli.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:52 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Americans get Latin as a choice among other modern languages, usually only in high school. And not all schools offer it, by any means. There is no part of the US educational curriculum that mandates a study of Latin at all, and there never has been outside of maybe a few New England prep schools that would have been established on the classical British model.

I think the situation in Britain is more like "Latin is no longer strictly universally required", while in the US it's more like, "Latin has never really been a core part of schooling at all."
posted by Sara C. at 10:00 AM on February 8, 2014

Many American Catholic schools mandated Latin study until recently (some still do, I'm sure). There have also long been public schools with mandatory Latin study (my mother attended one in Ohio the late 60s, as did my grandmother in Illinois in the 40s--both enjoy telling me how much they hated Latin; I teach it).

More recently, there is a trend (whether for good or ill) of 'Classical'-model schools that take Latin as a core subject. These are not generally public schools as most are at least implicitly Christian-religious in nature, although some are charter schools. Not a small number of Latin jobs posted are at these schools.

Anyway, I love the Laocoön statue, and I'm delighted to hear how many people remember it from their studies of the Aeneid! The Pharr Aeneid absolutely has a photo of it. (Also, there is no real equivalent of Pharr for Books 7-12, but when the AP curriculum expanded from 1, 2, 4, and 6 a few years back, Barbara Weiden Boyd did a fantastic updating of Pharr's text to include the new selections from 10-12, which is what I've used with students. Laocoön is still in there, fear not.)
posted by lysimache at 11:49 AM on February 8, 2014

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