Did Michelangelo simulate this iconic ancient statue?
A study of horror in marble, the work has been described by the British classic Nigel Spivey as “the prototypical icon of human agony” in Western art. The dark story of the Trojan priest Laocoon and his sons varies according to classical sources, but one of the most familiar is that told by Virgil in the Aeneid, completed in 19 BC.
In Epic Book II, which details the end of the Trojan War, Laocoon suspects that the wooden horse sent by the Greeks is a trap. After hitting the horse with a spear, Laocoon and his sons are seized by sea serpents which drag them to death, which the Trojans interpret as divine punishment. To appease the gods, they drag the horse to their city. (Archaeologists have spent decades searching for the lost city of Troy.)
Find worthy of a pope
The discovery of the Laocoon group was one of the most significant of the Renaissance. It had a lasting impact on sculptors, especially Michelangelo. In January 1506, a landowner, Felice de Fredis, ordered work to build a vineyard on his property on the slopes of the Esquiline Hill in Rome. Finding coins, inscriptions, and Roman statues was common for anyone digging into Roman soil, but the workers’ discovery on January 14 was extraordinary: a sunken chamber containing a group of exquisite and significant marble sculptures.
The figures in the sculpture were remarkable but not completely intact; the adult male figure was missing his right arm, and the two children were missing various fragments. They had clearly remained in hiding for centuries, but it didn’t take long for news of the discovery to reach Pope Julius II.