In 1506, Michelangelo witnessed the excavation of a long-lost Roman sculpture, showing a battle between man and monster. This sculpture has inspired writers and artists for generations, including Vergil and Goethe. Meet the Laocoon group, and hear these writers in their own words.
The Laocoon Group – View this online
If you want to take a closer look at the object mentioned in this episode, you can view it at the link above. Visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website: ashmolean.org/objects-out-loud
Hosted by Lucie Dawkins, with the voices of Jonathan Aris and Hannah Bristow.
The producer is Lucie Dawkins.
About Objects Out Loud: From a magician who inspired Shakespeare, and poems woven into Japanese prints, to manuscripts illuminated with the ancient love story of Layla and Majnun, this new podcast series will delve into the poetry and literature hidden in the collections at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
It’s February 1506, and Michelangelo is hurrying through the streets of Rome towards the Colosseum. His heart is in his mouth. A rumour is flying around the city that a lost Roman masterpiece has been discovered in a vineyard. He arrives just in time to find the marble figures of a man and two children still lying half-buried in the earth of an excavated hole. They are struggling for their lives, twisted together in the coils of two massive stone snakes. It is a moment he will never forget. At his feet is a portrait of exquisite suffering that has inspired artists and poets for over 2000 years, and is about to become an obsession in Michelangelo’s own work.
This is Objects Out Loud, an audio adventure through the poetry and stories hidden in the galleries of the Ashmolean Museum. Today, Michelangelo and Monsters.
In the early 1500s, when Michelangelo stood looking down at this sculpture in the dirt, Northern Italy was going through an explosion of innovation in science, art, literature, and architecture, which we call the Renaissance. The word ‘Renaissance’ means ‘re-birth’, and took its inspiration from the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. For any self-respecting Renaissance person, classical sculptures became must-have collector’s items. With their sublime craftsmanship and naturalistic anatomy, they represented the marriage of art and science which was right at the heart of the Renaissance spirit.
But there was a hunt on for a missing sculpture. The Renaissance Italians knew that, somewhere underfoot in Rome, a masterpiece lay hidden. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder had recorded the presence of an exceptional sculpture in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a millennium and a half beforehand, in the 70s CE, but no-one had seen it since. This was the clue he left behind.
When it comes to exceptional masterpieces, the number of artists working on them stands in the way of their individual fame. No single one of them holds the glory, nor can they be given credit equally across the group. This is the case with the Laocoon, which is in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work which surpasses all other art, both painted pictures and statutes. Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, three masterful artists from Rhodes, collaborated to sculpt Laocoon, his sons, and the incredible knots of the snakes out of a single block of marble.
These three artists that Pliny mentions, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athendorus were among the super stars of Greek artists, and they they were working in the 1st century BC. Between them, they created this tableau of a famous moment in the ancient epic story of the Trojan War, in which the Greeks laid siege to the city of Troy. The sculpture shows a Trojan man called Laocoon and his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, being consumed by a deadly sea serpent, in one of the most suspense-filled moments of the story. After years of bloody warfare, the Greeks had suddenly sailed way, leaving the Trojans with a giant wooden horse as a peace-offering. It was, of course, a trap. The horse was filled with soldiers, ready to spring out and slaughter the Trojans as soon as they brought it inside the city. The Trojan priest Laocoon was the only one to suspect a trick, and tried to warn his fellow citizens, but the gods Poseidon and Athena, who were supporting the Greeks, sent serpents out of the sea to slaughter him and his sons. It is this moment of agony, as a man fights to save his life and that of his children in service of the truth, that the Greek sculptors froze in marble for eternity.
The famous sculpture became part of the collection of the Roman imperial family. It is likely that the Roman writer Vergil, who was part of the imperial court, saw this sculpture when he was writing his own epic poem, The Aeneid. In it, he describes the moment of Laocoon’s death, and his poetry may well have been inspired directly by the Laocoon Group. Have a listen, and see if you think his poem is describing this sculpture - you can find a picture of it in the podcast notes.
Look! Out of the calm water in the direction of Tenedos
(I shudder as I tell it) two serpents with massive coils
Sprawled over the surge, and side-by-side sped shorewards.
They held their heads high above the sea
And their blood-red crests topped the waves.
They coiled the rest of their bodies under the surface
And twisted their monstrous backs under the churning waters.
There was a roar from the salty deep, and in that moment they reached land.
Their eyes blazed with blood and fire
And they licked their hissing jaws with quivering tongues.
We fled in terror at the sight.
They, with lightning strike, attacked Laocoon.
First, each snake wrapped the little bodies of his two sons
In their embrace, and dined in mouthfuls on their piteous flesh.
And then they attacked Laocoon himself,
As he came to save his sons, spear in hand,
And they shackled him in their huge spirals.
They wrapped twice around his waist,
And sent their scaly flanks twice around his neck
And arched their backs high above his head,
While he tore at their knotted bodies with his hands,
His priest’s headbands stained with gore and black venom.
His dreadful screams reached the stars.
With these clues from the Roman writers Pliny and Vergil, the Renaissance Italians were in a race to find this marvel which has been lost for 1400 years. Finally, it came to light in the vineyard in Rome, and one of the first people on the scene was the artist Michelangelo, along with his friend the architect Giuliano da Sangallo. Giuliano’s 11 year old son, Francesco, was also with them, and he wrote about this breathtaking moment in a letter, 60 years later.
“When I was first in Rome when I was a very young boy, the Pope was told about the discovery of some very beautiful statues in a vineyard near Santa Maria Maggiore. The Pope ordered one of his officers to run and tell Giuliano da Sangallo to go and see them. He set off at once. Since Michelangelo Buonarroti was always to be found at our house because my father had summoned him and given him the commission of the Pope's tomb, my father also wanted him to come. I joined my father and we went on our way. I climbed down to where the statues were, and straight away my father said, 'That is the Laocoon, which Pliny talks about.' They then dug a larger hole so that that they could get the statues out.”
Laocoon immediately became a VIP in Rome. Pope Julius II put it into his collections at the Vatican, and artists and scholars flocked to see it. It had clearly made a huge impression on Michelangelo, who called it ‘a miracle of art’. He repeatedly used the tortured, twisted anatomy of this group as inspiration for his own paintings and sculptures. In fact, if you look closely at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, you will find the Laocoon Group figures hiding in plain sight disguised a various characters from the Bible.
However, the sculpture that Michelangelo saw as he looked down into the hole in February 1506 is not exactly the sculpture that sits in the Ashmolean’s gallery. It was missing the right arm of Laocoon, as well as part of the snake, and a couple of the childrens’ hands.
Pope Julius II preferred his sculptures to look neat and completed, so he set up a competition between the leading sculptors of the time to suggest the best way of finishing off the missing pieces, and appointed another famous artist, Raphael, to be the judge. It goes to show how our attitude towards antiquities has changed over time. Today, conservators and restorers tend to focus on either preserving what is left, or reconstructing the artist’s original intention as accurately as possible. But during the Renaissance, restoration of antiquities was much more a subject for tasteful interior design. Collectors tended to prefer nicely complete sculptures which into fitted their personal collections - even to the point that fragments of different sculptures were jigsawed together to create one whole statue. It was such a popular practice that by the 1700s, workshops had popped up in Rome specifically to complete fragments of sculptures for rich tourists to take home with them - sometimes to order according to the customer’s taste. In the surviving collection of one such customer, Henry Blundell, there is even a head of the Emperor Commodus, which the face has been deliberately and entirely chipped away by a so-called ‘restorer’, presumably so that Blundell could replace it with his own portrait.
In the competition to restore the Laocoon, Michelangelo looked carefully at the way the muscles twisted in the sculpture’s torso, and submitted an entry which had his arm bent back over his shoulder. Raphael, however, chose an entry by Jacopo Sansovino, with the arm heroically outstretched, and that was how the sculpture was completed. In fact, if you look carefully at the group now, you can see that this arm does look odd - it throws the composition off, and doesn’t quite match up with the dynamic twisting movement of the rest of Laocoon’s body.
The Pope, however, was perfectly satisfied, and the neatly finished Laocoon, with his outstretched arm, became a star of the Vatican collections. Over the years, casts were made of it, and sent all over the world - just like this one here in the Ashmolean. Casts are a clever way of copying famous sculptures using an exact mould made by covering the original in plaster, and then removing the hardened shell and filling it with fresh plaster. As the fashion for classical sculptures grew, it was a affordable way of having the finest sculptures in your collection, even if someone else owned the original - a bit like the way you can go to a museum shop today, and get an reproduction poster of a masterpiece and hang it on your own wall. There are scores of Laocoon casts which look exactly like this one, with the wrong arm, and over time, everyone got used to this version of the sculpture.
However, in 1906, all that was to change. An archaeologist called Ludwig Pollack discovered a fragment of sculpture, with a muscular, bent elbow, on a building site in Rome near the spot where the vineyard had once been. He knew immediately what it was, and when it was placed alongside the group in the Vatican, it was a perfect fit. Michelangelo had been right all along. If you go to the Vatican today, you can see the the real arm back where it belongs.
But, Michelangelo was not the only artist who was gripped by the Laocoon Group. Over the years, many others, including Raphael, Titian, Rubens, and William Blake, copied and recycled the Laocoon figures in their work. It’s become something of an art history celebrity. Charles Dickens even describes Ebenezer Scrooge in the Christmas Carol as "making a perfect Laocoön of himself with his stockings” while he struggles to dress for Christmas dinner.
In the late 18th century, the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Laocoon on his travels through Europe, and was in awe of the way that it suggested bodies in motion. It fascinated him that stone could capture movement so accurately, and he was thrilled by the way that the sculpture showed human beings at the very moment of passing from life into death. It entranced him so much that he came up with a novel suggestion about how to look at the sculpture.
In order to conceive rightly the intention of the Laocoon, let a man place himself before it at a proper distance, with his eyes shut; then let him open his eyes, and shut them again instantly. By this means, he will see the whole marble in motion; he will fear lest he find the whole group changed, when he opens his eyes again. It might be said that, as it stands, it is a flash of lightning fixed, a wave petrified in the moment it rushes towards the shore. The same effect is produced by the contemplation of the group by torchlight.
The Laocoon Group had inspired Goethe to dream up a way of perceiving motion by rapidly stringing together still images. In the 18th century, the only way he could do this was by blinking his eyes - but in essence, he had just come up with the concept of film photography 100 years early.
Next time you are in the cast gallery in the Ashmolean, why don't you try it for yourself. Stand at a distance in front of the Laocoon Group, blink your eyes rapidly, like Goethe did, and see if this epic struggle between man and monster leaps to life before your eyes too.
Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Objects Out Loud. if you want to look closer at the Laocoon group, you can find an image in the podcast notes. In the next episode we will be heading over to the Japanese collections, to find about the art of giving poetry as gifts. If you’re enjoying the Ashmolean podcasts, please do review and share them, to help other listeners find us.