Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Portends of Doom: Laocoön & The Sack of Troy

Laocoön and his sons
(Vatican Museum)
Image courtesy of: http://fineartamerica.com

Nec deinde multo plurimum fama est, quorundam claritati in operibus eximiis obstante numero artificum, quoniam nec unus occupat gloriam nec plures pariter nuncupari possunt, sicut in Laocoonte, qui est in Titi imperatoris domo, opus omnibus et picturae et statuariae artis praeferendum. ex uno lapide eum ac liberos draconumque mirabiles nexus de consilii sententia fecere summi artifices Hagesander et Polydorus et Athenodorus Rhodii. ~ Pliny the Elder (Natural History 36.37)

(“Beyond these, there are not many sculptors of high repute; for, in the case of several works of very great excellence, the number of artists that have been engaged upon them has proved a considerable obstacle to the fame of each, no individual being able to engross the whole of the credit, and it being impossible to award it in due proportion to the names of the several artists combined. Such is the case with the Laocoön, for example, 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. It is sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the serpents with their marvelous folds. This group was made in concert by three most eminent artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, natives of Rhodes.”) (Translated from the Latin by John Bostock, M.D., source: digitalsculpture.org, 2009)

(Photograph by Carla Siqueira ~ July, 2008)
Image courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com

It is just possible that, were it not for the first century A.D. Roman copy of Laocoön and his sons (estimated between 20-40 C.E.), unearthed on January 14th, 1506, on the Oppian Hill, under the remains of the Baths of Titus at a site called "Le Capocce," in a vineyard on the Esquiline Hill worked by a certain Felice de Freddis, the tragic story of the Trojan seer Laocoön and his two sons would not have been noticed. The group statue is compelling; the story that inspired it is equally so. (Source: Frischer, B., digitalsculpture.org, June 1, 2010)

Embedded in Book II of The Aeneid, is a story that can easily be overlooked or lost in the overall narration of Vergil's epic masterpiece poem. As it is recounted  by the lead character, Aeneas, it tells the tale  of  how the priest and seer of Apollo, Laocoön, in the midst of a sacrificial offering at the altar of Poseidon, warns his fellow Trojans against accepting the giant wooden horse (cleverly devised by Odysseus/Ulysses), left by the crafty Greeks outside of the city walls of Troy (Ilium). The Trojan Horse, as it is now known, was left by the Greeks as a  parting peace offering to the goddess of wisdom and war, Pallas Athene. In an attempt to prove or verify his concern, Laocoön hurls his lance at the horse. This act ensures the displeasure and, worse, the ire of the goddess - and his own, agonizing death. Thus enraged and at her divine behest, vengeful Athene bids twin serpents from the sea, monstrous in size and ferocity, to publicly attack and kill Laocoön and his sons, Antiphas and Thymbraeus, in full view of the Trojan populace.
(Sources: ancientrome.ru, undated; britannica.com, 2011; The Aeneid by Vergil)

(Photographs by William McClung ~ June, 2010, St. Petersburg, Russia)
(A copy of the original sculpture)
The above three images are courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com

The hapless and heedless Trojans, misinterpreting the killing of Laocoön and his sons as an omen of  godly retribution for his impious sacrilege, foolishly ignore the priest's astute warnings. Unbenknownst to them and to their own detriment, the Trojans open the gates and drag the horse into the midst of their doomed city, completely unaware that lurking in the wooden belly of the beast are armed Greeks. Of all the Trojans, however, only Aeneas, the Trojan prince, correctly interprets the true significance of the omen - Laocoön's demise, strangled along with his two sons by the sea serpents was, in essence, a prompt silencing of the seer by the gods  - and manages to not only save his own life, but also the the lives of his old father, Anchises, his young son, Ascanius (Iulus), and a few of his compatriots by fleeing ahead of the marauding, murdering Greeks who have set Troy afire. (Source: The Aeneid by Vergil)

(Photographs by William McClung ~ June, 2010, St. Petersburg, Russia)
(A copy of the original sculpture)
The above two images are courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com

Led by Aeneas, these Trojan refugees then embarked on a journey through foreign lands in search of a land of their own in which to found a new Troy and a new race of noble Trojans. Eventually, after seven roaming years, Aeneas and his compatriots who escaped the destruction of Troy by the Greeks, land in Lavinium - modern-day Italy; the ancient Romans always believed that the dynasty founded by Aeneas produced the founders of Rome: Romulus and Remus. And thus, the Romans always claimed their lineage from Aeneas and those first few surviving Trojans. Although the figure of Aeneas was most likely mythical, the intent of Vergil's Aeneid was the glorification of Rome and the greatness of the Roman race; and, by conferring on him a noble heritage through direct descent from Aeneas, to extol the Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar.

The above two images are courtesy of:  http://bradpsculptor.wordpress.com

The Aeneid of Vergil ~ Book II:

Girt with a throng of Ilion's sons,
Down from the tower Laocoön runs,
And, "Wretched countrymen," he cries,
"What monstrous madness blinds your eyes?
Think you your enemies removed?
Come presents without wrong
From Danaans? have you thus approved
Ulysses, known so long?
Perchance - who knows? - these planks of deal
A Grecian ambuscade conceal,
Or 'tis a pile to o'ervlook the town,
And pour from high invaders down,
Or fraud lurks somewhere to destroy:
Mistrust, mistrust it, men of Troy!
Whate'er it be, a Greek I fear,
Though presents in his hand he bear."

He spoke, and with his arm's full force
Straight at the belly of the horse
His mighty spear he cast:
Quivering it stood: the sharp rebound
Shook the huge monster: and a sound
Through all its caverns passed.
And then, had fate our weal designed
Nor given us a perverted mind,
Then had he moved us to deface
The Greeks' accursed lurking place,
And Troy had been abiding still,
And Priam's tower yet crowned the hill...

Image courtesy of: http://ancientrome.ru

...But ghastly portents lay behind,
Our unprophetic souls to blind.
Laocoön, named as Neptune's priest,
Was offering up the victim beast,
When Lo! from Tenedos - I quail,
E'en now, at the telling of the tale,
Two monstrous serpents stem the tide,
And shoreward through the stillness glide.

Amid the waves they rear their breasts,
And toss on high their sanguine crests:
The hind part coils along the deep,
And undulates with sinuous sweep.
The lashed spray echoes: now they reach
The inland belted by the beach,
And rolling bloodshot eyes of fire,
Dart their forked tongues, and hiss for ire.

(Photograph by Ya'ir Aizenman ~ August, 2010)
Image courtesy of: http://picasaweb.google.com

We fly distraught: unswerving they
Toward Laocoön hold their way;
First round his two young sons they wreathe,
And grind their limbs with savage teeth:
Then, as with arms he comes to aid,
The wretched father they invade
And twine in giant folds: twice round
His stalwart waist their spires are wound,
Twice round his neck, while over all
Their heads and crests tower high and tall.

He strains his strength their knots to tear,
While gore and slime his fillets smear,
And to the unregardful skies
Sends up his agonizing cries:
A wounded bull such moaning makes,
When from his neck the axe he shakes,
Ill-aimed, and from the altar breaks.
The twin destroyers take their flight
To Pallas' temple on the height;
There by the Goddess' feet concealed
They lie, and nestle 'neath her shield.

Laocoön detail
(Photograph by Giulio Menna ~ April, 2010)
Image courtesy of: http://www.fotopedia.com

At once through hapless Ilium's sons
A shock of feverous horror runs:
All in Laocoön's death-pangs read
The just requital of his deed,
Who dared to harm with impious steel
Those planks of consecrated deal.
"The image to its fane!" they cry:
"So soothe the offended deity."

Each in the labour claims his share:
The walls are breached, the town laid bare:
Wheels 'neath its feet are fixed to glide,
And round its neck stout ropes are tied:
So climbs our wall that shape of doom,
With battle quickening in its womb,
While youths and maidens sing glad songs,
And joy to touch the harness thongs.
It comes, and, glancing terror down,
Sweeps through the bosom of the town

(Photograph by Sergey Sosnovskiy ~ November, 2010)
Image courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com

O Ilium, city of my love!
O warlike home of powers above!
Four times 'twas on the threshold stayed:
Four times the armour clashed and brayed.
Yet on we press with passion blind,
All forethought blotted from our mind,
Till the dread monster we install
Within the temple's tower-built wall.
E'en then Cassandra's prescient voice
Forewarned us of our fatal choice,
That prescient voice, which Heaven decreed
No son of Troy should hear and heed.
We, careless souls, the city through,
With festal boughs the fanes bestrew,
And in such revelry employ
The last, last day should shine on Troy.

(Translated into English verse by John Conington)
(Source: The Aeneid of Virgil, 1867: W. J. Widdleton)

Laocoön detail
(Photographs by Rebecca ~ July, 2008)
The above two images are courtesy of: http://picasaweb.google.com

Popularly attributed by Pliny the Elder to be the work of  three contributing Rhodian sculptors, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, shortly after its discovery in January 1506, Pope Julius II (patron of the sculptor and artist Michelangelo) sent Giuliano da Sangallo, his son Francesco, and Michelangelo to see the newly discovered find. Giuliano da Sangallo quickly identified it as the famous group praised by Pliny in his book, Natural History (70s C.E.). Contrary to Pliny's description of the group, it was almost immediately noticed that the Laocoön was not carved from a single block of marble but assembled from several pieces (the figure of the older son and other parts of the group were found separately). Various explanations have been advanced through the centuries but few scholars have doubted that this Laocoön indeed corresponds to the statue group reported by Pliny. (Giuseppe Lugli, author of the 1958 book La Domus Titi e la scopeta del Laocoönte, argues that the Palace of the Emperor Titus was situated on the Quirinal Hill and that the Laocoön must, therefore, have been a copy.) (Sources: britannica.com, 2011; Frischer, B., digitalsculpture.org, 2009)

A couple of months after its discovery, Pope Julius II purchased the Laocoön from Felice de Freddis on March 23rd, 1506; by June of 1506, the group was moved to the Vatican. Pope Julius eventually installed the  Laocoön in the Vatican Belvedere, originally a rectangular garden courtyard placed in the "Villetta di Belvedere"[in] a special space like a chapel," in the central niche in the south wall of the Cortile between Apollo and Venus. In 1511, the group was placed on its new pedestal in the Cortile delle Statue. (Source & quote: Frischer, B., digitalsculpture.org, 2009)

The above five images are courtesy of: http://bradpsculptor.wordpress.com

In July 1798, the Laocoön was taken to Paris under the terms of the Treaty of Tolentino (February 1797) and placed in the Musée Central des Arts when it opened on November 9, 1800. The modern arms that had been created for it were removed and left in Rome (throughout the centuries since its discovery, several artists have attempted interpretations - and restorations - for some of the missing pieces of the group. The position of Laocoön's right arm, for instance, was often debated and surmised, as were the missing arms of his two sons and other lost parts). Once in Paris, a competition was held for a new restoration, but no one entered. The Laocoön was thus restored with the plaster arms that the sculptor Girardon had made on returning from his journey to Rome at the end of the Seventeenth Century. As Pinelli notes regarding the Laocoön's (right) arm, recalling Johann Joachim Winckelmann's judgment: "this arm, entangled by the snake, must have been folded over the head of the statue,yet it looks as if the arm folded above the head would have in some way made the work wrong."

With the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon's defeat on June 18th, 1815,  the Laocoön (along with other works of art looted by the French from Roman and other collections) began its journey home from Paris in October 1815 and arrived at the Vatican on January 4th, 1816. In February, it was reinstalled in the Belvedere, though not into its original niche, but into the spot formerly occupied by Venus Felix.  

Then at last, in 1905, a wonderful discovery: several hundred meters from where the statue group had originally been unearthed over four hundred years earlier, Laocoön's arm was found in a sculptor's shop on the Via Labicana in Rome. (Quote and source: Frischer, B., digitalsculpture.org, 2009)

Drawing after the Laocoön
(Sketch of the Laocoön Group by Peter Paul Rubens ~ ca.1601-02)
Image courtesy of: http://artmight.com

Suggested readings:

The Aeneid of Virgil (1867), by Publius Vergilius Maro, translation by John Conington: W. J. Widdleton

Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1962), by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Bobbs-Merrill

Laocoön: The Influence of the Group Since Its Discovery (1967), by Margarete Bieber: Wayne State University Press

Laocoön's Body and the Aesthetics of Pain (1992), by Simon Richter: Wayne State University Press

Art and Civilization (1993), by Edward Lucie-Smith: H. N. Abrams

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