One of the most admired works of Hellenistic statuary is The Laocoön Group, an ancient marble sculpture unearthed near Rome in 1506 and on public display at the Vatican Museums. The figures are nearly life-size, and the group stands 6’7” in height, showing the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents. With its struggling and straining bodies and contorted facial expressions, the statue exemplifies human agony and sublime tragedy.
Pliny the Elder, a foremost Roman author on art among other accomplishments, praised the work highly, which he attributed to three Greek sculptors from Rhodes– Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus– but he does not give a date or a patron. It is not known today whether The Laocoön Group is an original work or is a copy of an earlier bronze sculpture. Various dates have been suggested, but most scholars think it was created between 27 BC and 68 AD.
The story of Laocoön comes from Greek poems on the Trojan Wars, but the events around the attack by the serpents vary considerably. The story is not mentioned by Homer at all; it had been the subject of a tragedy by Sophocles, which is now lost. The most famous account is in Virgil’s Aeneid.
In Virgil, Laocoön was Poseidon’s priest who was killed with both his sons after attempting to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse. In Sophocles, he was Apollo’s priest who should have been celibate but had married. The serpents killed the sons but spared Laocoön so that he would continue to suffer. In other versions, he was killed for having had sex with his wife in the temple of Poseidon, and the snakes were sent by Poseidon. In the former versions, the snakes were sent either by Poseidon and Athena, or by Apollo; the Trojans interpreted the deaths as proof that the horse was a sacred object. The interpretations are different: Either Laocoön was punished for doing wrong, or for being right.
It is interesting to note that the two snakes depicted in the sculpture are both biting and constricting; they are probably intended to be venomous, as told by Virgil. They produce different effects on the three figures: the youth embraced in the coils is fearful, the father struck by the fangs is in torment, and the son who received the poison is dying. In one Greek account of the story, the older son on the right is able to escape, and the composition seems to allow for that possibility.
The Laocoön Group had a profound influence on Michelangelo and countless other artists who followed. Michelangelo was impressed by the massive scale of the work and by its sensuous aesthetic. Its influence can be seen in his sculptures, the Rebellious Slave and the Dying Slave, which were created for the tomb of Pope Julius II, and on figures in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Raphael used the face of Laocoön for his depiction of Homer in his Parnassus fresco in the Vatican’s Raphael Rooms, expressing blindness rather than pain. Titian and Rubens also drew inspiration from the sculpture.
During the Baroque period in Florence in the 1700s, there was an intense interest in small bronze copies of famous antiquities. Giovanni Battista Foggini (1652 – 1725), an artist renowned for small bronze statuary, created a bronze replica of Laocoön and his Sons, at least one of which is on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Among the unknowns about the origin of this statue is its patron. Art historians think it was probably commissioned for the home of a wealthy Roman, possibly of the Imperial family. For the Romans, the subject held a special meaning: the divine punishment meted out to Laocoön and his sons forewarned Aeneas of the fall of Troy and, according to the myth, caused him to flee the city. Since Aeneas was believed to have come to Italy and to have been the ancestor of Romulus and Remus, the death of Laocoön could be seen as the first link in the chain of events that led to the founding of Rome.