Where? The Octagonal Court of the Museo Pio Clementino in the Vatican Museums
When? Uncertain, but estimates range from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD.
By who? Unclear, but probably this is a Roman copy of an ancient Greek original in bronze. Some people suggest that it was made by the three Greek sculptors Hagesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus.
What do you see? This life-size statue is made of seven different blocks of marble and shows Laocoön and his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, being attacked by two sea serpents. Laocoön sits on an altar and is sculpted as a very muscular man. He strains every muscle that he has to escape from the serpents. The oldest son on the right seems to break free from the serpents and looks at his brother and father. Laocoön and the youngest son on the left are in big trouble, and their faces express their struggle. The youngest son seems to cast a last glance at his father, but he looks to be (almost) dead already. Notice that the serpents are trying to kill Laocoön and his sons both by constricting and biting them. You can see the head of one of the serpents next to the left hand of Laocoön. You can also see that a few pieces are missing from this sculpture. First, substantial parts of the serpents are missing. Second, the right hand of Laocoön is missing. Third, part of the right arm of the younger son and the right hand of the older son are missing.
Backstory: This statue is also referred to as the Laocoön group. On January 14, 1506, the statue of Laocoön and His Sons was discovered on the Esquiline Hill (one of the Seven Hills of Rome). It was found in an underground room of a vineyard of Felice de Fredis. The underground room was later identified as part of the Baths of Trajan (53-117 AD). Michelangelo was one of the first people to see the statue and was very impressed with it. Two months after its discovery, the owner of the vineyard sold the statue to Pope Julius II, who displayed it in the Octagonal Court of the Vatican Museum, where it now has a place close to the famous Apollo Belvedere statue. The statue was already discussed by Pliny the Elder, a Roman author from the first century AD. He had seen a sculpture of Laocoön and his sons in the palace of Titus before he would become the Roman emperor from 79-81 AD. However, it is unclear if this was the same statue as Pliny the Elder mentioned that the version he saw was made from a single block of marble.
Who is Laocoön? According to Greek mythology, Laocoön was a Trojan priest. There are various accounts of his story. Virgil describes the most popular version in the second book of the Aeneid. According to him, when the Greeks left Troy, they left as a gift a very large wooden horse in front of the gates of Troy. Laocoön suspected that this horse was a trick of the Greeks and tried to convince the people of Troy not to accept the gift. To prove that the horse was a trick, he struck the horse with his spear to show that it was hollow. Poseidon and Athena then punished him for his interference and Laocoön and his two sons were attacked and killed by two sea serpents named Porces and Chariboea. The Trojans interpreted this event as a sign that the horse was not a trick and they took the horse into their city walls after which the Greek came out of the horse during the night and defeated the Trojans.
Copies: Many copies of this statue have been made and can be found across the world. A well-known copy is the marble version by Baccio Bandinelli in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. Another bronze version made by Francesco Primaticcio for King François I of France is in the Louvre. Jean Baptiste Tuby made a copy for the Park of the Château de Versailles in France. The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, has a terracotta version of this sculpture by Stefano Maderno. Some other places that have a copy of this statue are the Mannheim Palace in Germany, the Archeological Museum of Odessa in Ukraine, Houghton Hall in England, and the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes in Greece. This statue has also inspired many other artists to depict the story of Laocoön. For example, El Greco created a painting of Laocoön that is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Several parodies of this sculpture have also been made over time. For example, Niccolò Boldrini made a woodcut around 1540 for which he copied a drawing of Titian in which monkeys replace Laocoön and his sons.
Fun fact: The statue misses a few limbs and parts of the serpents. Over time, the missing parts were added to the sculpture and sculptors, including Antonio Canova did various restorations. The right arm of Laocoön was already added in the 16th century, but there was quite some discussion on whether the arm would be straight up or bent back over the shoulder (which Michelangelo suggested). The experts chose that the arm would be straight up and you can see in the picture how the statue looked before 1960. In 1906, an archeologist found a right arm of a sculpture which he thought could be the missing right arm of the Laocoön sculpture. He donated the arm to the Vatican Museums, but only 54 years later the museum verified that it was indeed the missing arm of Laocoön, and it was added to the sculpture. The missing right arm was bent over the shoulder as Michelangelo supposed (this also means that the replicas of this sculpture from before 1960 are incorrect). In the 1980s all non-original additions to the sculpture were removed, and the sculpture became like we can see it today.
Written by Eelco Kappe