The Laocoön, Vatican Museums


One of the most popular stops in the Vatican Museums is in front of the twisting mass of the Laocoön and His Sons. Pronounced LAY-oh-co-en, this is not a Roman copy, but a Greek original, although probably from the first century BC, when Rome already controlled Greece.
In mythology, Laocoön was a priest in the city of Troy. The Greeks had been trying to capture the city for 10 long, fruitless years. Then, they came up with an idea. They pretended to give up and sail away, leaving behind a wooden horse for the Trojans as a parting gift. Inside the horse they had hidden part of their army.
Laocoön smelled a rat, and urged the Trojans to burn the horse. He coined the phrase “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” The gods were angry with Laocoön, though, and so they sent sea serpents to crush him and his sons. In the statue you see the struggling Laocoön, just as he realizes that he’s doomed.
There is nothing calm and balanced about Laocoön. Massive, emotional, and rippling with muscle, this is typical of the Hellenistic style from around 300 BC.
Art tends to reflect what’s going on in a society. After decades of war, Golden Age Greeks wanted the calm and balance of Apollo Belvedere. After a few decades of peace, people got bored and wanted a little spice and excitement. Human nature never changes.
Laocoön was found in 1506, buried on the hill near the Colosseum. Michelangelo was one of the first people to see the statue as it was being unearthed, and it had the same effect on him that Apollo Belevedere had a few years earlier. After this, Michelangelo’s figures hit the gym and become much more muscular.
Interestingly, when the statue was found, Laocoön was missing his right arm. At the time, it was common to 'restore' a statue like this, by replacing missing parts. A contest was held to see how artists thought it had looked. Most went for an arm that was reaching straight up and away, like the Laocoön was pushing the serpent away. Only Michelangelo thought it was twisted back behind Laocoön’s head, based on his study of musculature and anatomy. Ignoring Michelangelo’s opinion, a reconstruction of the arm was made with it sticking straight out. For 400 years that was the way everybody saw the statue until, in 1906, the real arm was found. Guess what? It was twisted back behind his head, just like Michelangelo had thought.

Excerpted from Hand Crafted Travel's Walks in Rome & Vatican City, a series of self-guided walks through the Eternal City.


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