Laocoon's Influence on Renaissance Artists

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The Renaissance was indeed a proud moment in history. It was a time of the revitalization of antiquity, breakthrough scientific discoveries, and profound, inspirational artwork. The desire and urge to establish stronger connections with the classical past brought about the search and discovery of many ancient manuscripts and artworks. One of the most celebrated discoveries occurred during the height of the Renaissance: The Laocoon. Perhaps one of the world’s most famous Hellenistic sculptures, it was originally located in the palace of Titus. It was then lost for over a thousand years before its rediscovery in 1506. Pope Julius II immediately acquired it, and displayed it in the Vatican Museums. The renowned discovery of one of the few Hellenistic sculptures had a profound impact on history. Its significance is unparallel to any other piece of art. In this paper, I will discuss the significance of the Laocoon: its celebrated discovery, its ability to raise debate even in the modern times, and lastly, its influence on Renaissance artists. The Laocoon group is a large, white, marble sculpture. Measuring 242cm in height, it is virtually life size. It was discovered in 1506, and is currently located in the Vatican Museums. Portrayed is the death of Laocoon (the high priest of Troy) and his two sons. The sculpture is viewed only from the front, and has a very central balance; Laocoon is in the center and is flanked by his two sons. The three figures are integrated together by a coiling and writhing sea serpent locking its victims in a death grip. The serpent’s head is visibly shown with its jaws open, ready to strike again into Laoocon’s lower left torso. The overall piece shows an acute attention to detail: the muscular torsos are twisted and strained, the muscles are swelling from the serpent’s bites, and the veins are throbbing with venom.

The facial features in the Laocoon Group illustrate an emotional narrative to the viewer. Laocoon’s twisted torso and unnatural position immediately illustrates extreme discomfort and pain. His neck is slightly bent, and his face is full of sorrow, pain, and suffering. His eyebrows are drooping, and a low moan escapes his slightly open mouth. Though he is full of pain, this is a not a man full or rage or anger. Rather, Laocoon realizes his imminent death, and is pleading to the Gods for mercy and help. His two sons both look up towards their father, anxiously seeking aid or signs of reassurance, but only to find him in a state of deep agony. This in turn reveals their reactions, their faces full of despair and trepidation. Laocoon himself is portrayed in a Herculean fashion. He is extremely muscular, his biceps and abdominals are clearly defined, while his pectorals and quadrupeds are sturdy and hefty. He is seated on some robes on what appears to be the base of a column in a contrapossto position. His right leg is bent in a 90 degrees angle and slightly forward, while his left leg is extended outwards. Laocoon’s left arm is grabbing onto the serpent, while his right arm is bent behind his head. When the statue was discovered, the right arm originally missing. Pope Julius II held a contest among sculptors, which was judged by Raphael, to determine the shape and position of the replacement arm. Though Michelangelo did not participate, he suggested that the right arm was originally bent back behind Laocoon’s shoulder. The winning design depicted the right arm in an outstretched position, and was attached to the sculpture. However, in 1957, the original right arm was found in Rome, and was in the position originally suggested by Michelangelo. The original arm is now rejoined to the statue.

The iconography and narrative of this sculpture comes straight out of a scene from Virgil’s Aeneid. According to Greek mythology, the Trojan War occurred around 1200 BC between the Greeks and the Trojans. The war dragged on for nine years, and while the Greeks ravaged the towns around Troy, they were...
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