Moment, movement and pathos of the Laocoön: the bequest of Antiquity

On the 14th January 1506, while digging in his vineyard, a gentleman made one of the most famous re-discovery of antiquities in Rome: a magnificent sculptural group came to light, virtuously carved to render an unparalleled energy. Destined to be the favorite ancient model of masterful verisimilitude and moving expression for Renaissance and Baroque artists, the Laocoön and his Sons has attracted the most passionate attentions of art historians and critics as well, committed in the debate around the survival of Antiquity as artistic bequest of human civilization.

Laocoön in Ancient mythology

Death of Laocoön, illustration of text from the Aeneid, ca. 400 AD, Vatican Vergil

Death of Laocoön, illustration of text from the Aeneid, ca. 400 AD, Vatican Vergil (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225), Folio 18v.

Laocoön was a Trojan soothsayer and priest (either of Poseidon, as in Virgil’s Aeneid, or Apollo, as in a Sophocles’ lost tragedy) who fell victim of the gods’ inscrutable revenge. In one group of versions narrating his fate, Athena punished him for having struck the Trojan Horse with a spear or for having set fire to the horse, because he wanted to help his community, putting it on his guard against the deceitfulness of the Greeks. So Athena sent him two giant sea serpents, Porcete and Caribea, which wound up with their coils and smothered him and his sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. The death of the father together with his sons became an emblem of the human suffering and tragic pessimism in Antiquity. [1]

Marco Dente, Laocoön and his two sons being attacked by serpents

Marco Dente, Laocoön and his two sons being attacked by serpents upon a pedestal, a temple to Minerva behind them, another temple and the sea in the background, ca. 1515–27, engraving, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Inv.17.50.16-99.

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The re-discovery of the sculptural group

Parmigianino (1503–1540), Testa del Laocoonte (Bearded head looking up, possibly Laocoön), ca. 1530s, drawing, red chalk on paper, Derbyshire, Chatsworth House.

This artwork has been deemed as a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original maybe dating to the 1st century BC and probably cast in bronze. Attributed to the Rhodian artists Agesanders, Athenodoros and Polydorus by Pliny the Elder, it reveals the connections between the milieu of Rhodes and Pergamon in the late Hellenistic period. The virtuosity of the painful spasm is characterized by expressionist elements and an exasperated rhythm unwound in the complexity of space through the “mirabiles nexus” which amazed Pliny. [2]

The magnificent sculptural group probably came to light on the 14th January 1506, while the gentleman Felice de Fredis was digging in his vineyard, located near the Sette Sale, the ruined cistern of the Trajan’s Baths at the base of the Oppian Hill, the southern spur of the Esquiline Hill near the Colosseum (now corresponding to the urban block among via Merulana, via Carlo Botta, via Mecenate and via Poliziano). [3]

The re-discovery of this much-admired masterpiece in the Renaissance period made the greatest impression and many artists were influenced by this Ancient model and studied it, like Baccio Bandinelli, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raffaello Sanzio. The effectiveness of the vital verisimilitude emerging from a material representation of the transience nature is the key to interpret the fortune gained by the sculpture soon after its finding, because the artwork met the Renaissance artists’ will to represent the emotions through the movements in figurative art, in the most truthful and characteristic way. [4] [5]

Federico Zuccari, Taddeo Zuccaro Copying the Antique Statues in Rome,

Federico Zuccari, Taddeo Zuccaro Copying the Antique Statues in Rome, second half of 16th century, pen and ink and wash (183 mm x 425 mm), Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi.

A landmark interpretation by Aby Warburg

Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydorus, Laocoön and his Sons

Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydorus, Laocoön and his Sons, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original dating to ca. the 1st century BC, marble (208 × 163 × 112) cm, Cortile Ottagono, Vatican City, Museo Pio Clementino.

Aby Warburg (Hamburg 1866 – 1929) gave an important contribute to the interpretation of the Laocoön. Warburg was an innovative art scholar who found a new multidisciplinary approach to the scientific study of art history at the crossroads between 19th and 20th centuries. Maintaining the survival of Antique in later ages of figurative expression and especially in the Renaissance as the main trail for his researches, he has been considered as a “scientist of the images” by Horst Bredekamp. [4]

Warburg meditated on the Laocoön in range of his researches focusing on the anthropologic value of the symbols in primitive religions and their legacy in artistic representation, as explained in his study later called “A lecture on serpent ritual”, which testified to his inspirational travel among the Hopi Indians in New Mexico and Arizona between 1895-1896. In particular, the snake was significantly considered by him as one of the most essential symbols in several archaic rituals, deeply linked to the common religious needs of mankind. [6] It embodied the destructive power of the underworld and found in the Laocoön the most incisive tragic symbol, contributing to the pathos of the sculptural group as personification of the supreme human suffering. [1]

Moment, Movement and Pathos

Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydorus, Laocoön and his Sons

Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydorus, Laocoön and his Sons, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original dating to ca. the 1st century BC, marble (208 × 163 × 112) cm, Cortile Ottagono, Vatican City, Museo Pio Clementino.

Warburg’s main interest towards the Laocoön and his Sons resided however in his researches on the mythical pathos in Ancient culture, as shown in the gestures and movements of the human body. [4] He thus characterized the group sculpture of the Laocoön as the emblematic object of study for artistic representation of the movement, ranging from the emotional to the formal registers. In particular, in the Laocoön, visually captured in a transience moment, he recognized an intense and lively nucleus of pathos, masterly expressed through the motion of the shapes. In this case, he intended thus to analyze the artistic expression of the body uncontrollably dominated and pushed in motion by an external force, which contributes to the revived expression of human pain. The snakes wrapping up the bodies of the hero and his sons design the track of that motion, as the principle of the group composition. [5]

This attention to the dynamic representation in Ancient art already arose in German culture at the end of the 18th century. [4] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe focused on the involving movement expressed within the sculptural group, so that he recommended the visitor to squint in order to see the group entering in motion with a strobe effect, which is called “flicker effect” in experimental cinema [5] (read more also on his stay in Rome and the Roman Elegies). He then highlighted the ability of this artwork to animate itself while representing a fleeting instant [7] and brought into question Winckelmann’s paradigm on Ancient beauty, when he wrote, probably referring to Laocoön: [4]

The ancients, as I have tried to show elsewhere, avoided not so much what was ugly as what was false. […] This is to me the proof that the excellence of the ancients is to be sought in something other than the creation of beauty. [8]

The Soviet director Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (Riga 1898 – Moscow 1948) wrote that the lived expression of pain in the static marble of the Laocoön is rendered through the illusion of movement, reached by melting in a single image different aspects of bodily movements not usually visible at the same time. [9]

Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydorus, Laocoön and his Sons, detail of Laocoön

Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydorus, Laocoön and his Sons, detail of Laocoön, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original dating to ca. the 1st century BC, marble (208 × 163 × 112) cm, Cortile Ottagono, Vatican City, Museo Pio Clementino.

Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydorus, Laocoön and his Sons, detail of the younger son Thymbraeus

Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydorus, Laocoön and his Sons, detail of the younger son Thymbraeus, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original dating to ca. the 1st century BC, marble (208 × 163 × 112) cm, Cortile Ottagono, Vatican City, Museo Pio Clementino.

Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydorus, Laocoön and his Sons, detail of the older son Antiphantes

Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydorus, Laocoön and his Sons, detail of the older son Antiphantes, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original dating to ca. the 1st century BC, marble (208 × 163 × 112) cm, Cortile Ottagono, Vatican City, Museo Pio Clementino.

A modern “paragone” between art and poetry

Linked to his aim to finally surpass the common aesthetic consideration of art, Aby Warburg’s thoughts around the Laocoön are a critic response to the comparison between textual and visual arts by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, [4] explained in his “Laokoon: oder über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie”, published in 1766. [10] In Lessing’s opinion, the effect caused by the sculpture was essentially connected to its ethic and aesthetic value, as already suggested by Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Lessing’s text opened with a citation from “Reflections on the painting and sculpture of the Greeks” by Winckelmann: [4]

Laocoön suffers, but he suffers like the Philoctetes of Sophocles; his anguish pierces our very soul, but at the same time we wish that we were able to endure our suffering as well as this great man does. [11]

Laocoön and his Sons, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original dating to ca. the 1st century BC, marble (208 × 163 × 112) cm, Cortile Ottagono, Vatican City, Museo Pio Clementino

Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydorus, Laocoön and his Sons, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original dating to ca. the 1st century BC, marble (208 × 163 × 112) cm, Cortile Ottagono, Vatican City, Museo Pio Clementino

Lessing, however, exceeded Winckelmann’s comparison between Laocoön and Philoctetes [12] and counterpoised the emotional and expressive power of sole poetry to the static beauty of sculpture. According to Lessing, in fact, the dimension of poetry was the only one animated by passions, actions and movements; visual arts, on the contrary, could merely cause pleasure trough beauty. [4]

Warburg certainly knew the aesthetic theories by Winckelmann on the classic model of ideal beauty: he cited in fact the same work mentioned by Lessing [4] in his “Grundlegende Bruchstücke”, [13] collecting his reflections between 1888-1903, whereas the draft for a seminar given in Bonn on the 24 May 1889 [14] merged the remarks, arisen during his first stay in Florence, around that modern “paragone delle arti”, the ideal debate on the distinct abilities of poetry and figurative arts activated by Lessing. [4]

The Laocoön and his Sons never ceased to influence the art world thereafter: while serving as an enduring source of inspiration for artists, it triggered a deep debate contributing to shape and compare the evolving theories in art historiography. Its oppressed wiggling movements together with its silent yet dreadful pain endure with the same intensity trough the ages of history. Warburg’s interpretation of its pathos has taught us to see the Ancient artworks in a different way, considering them no more as merely beautiful repertories or precious objects, yet also as the always active nests of relationships between the creative power of style, often representing the temporary essentiality chosen from the animated flow of the reality, and the symbolic expression of the most intense emotions belonging to human culture. [4]

Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Gallery of Views of Ancient Rome, 1758, oil on canvas

Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Gallery of Views of Ancient Rome, 1758, oil on canvas (2.31 x 3.03) m, Paris, Louvre Museum, Inv. RF 1944-21.


References

[1]       Aby Warburg, Il rituale del serpente. Milano: Adelphi, 2011.

[2]       Giovanni Becatti, L'arte dell'età classica. Milano: Sansoni, 1999.

[3]       A. Parisi and R. Volpe, "Alla ricerca di una scoperta. Felice de Fredis e il ritrovamento del Laocoonte," Bullettino della Commissione Archeologica Comunale di Roma, vol. CX, 2009.

[4]       Claudia Cieri Via, Introduzione a Aby Warburg. Roma-Bari: Gius. Laterza & Figli Spa, 2011.

[5]       Philippe-Alain Michaud, "Serpenti e forme serpentine al cinema," in Il rituale del serpente, U. Raulff, Ed. Milano: Adelphi, 1998, pp. 105-107.

[6]       Salvatore Settis, "Verso una storia naturale dell'arte. Aby Warburg davanti a un rinascimento indoamericano (1895)," in Gli Hopi. La sopravvivenza dell'umanità primitiva nella cultura degli indiani d'America del Nord, Maurizio Ghelardi, Ed. Torino: Nino Aragno Editore, 2007.

[7]       J. W. Goethe, "Sul Laocoonte (1798)," in Scritti sull'arte e sulla letteratura, S. Zecchi, Ed. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 1992, pp. 103-113.

[8]       Humphry Trevelyan, Goethe and the Greeks. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1941.

[9]       V. Gallese, "Arte & Cervello. Aby Warburg e il dialogo tra estetica, biologia e fisiologia," pH, no. 2, pp. 48-62, 2012.

[10]     Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoonte: ovvero sui limiti fra pittura e poesia (1766). Milano: RCS Libri, 1994.

[11]     Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Reflections on the painting and sculpture of the Greeks [...]. London: A. Millar, 1765. Digitization

[12]     Johann Gottfried Herder, Selected Writings on Aesthetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

[13]     Aby Warburg,. London: Warburg Institute Archive, vol. III, 43.

[14]     Aby Warburg, "Opere," in La Rinascita del paganesimo antico e altri scritti (1889-1914), M. Ghelardi, Ed. Torino: Nino Aragno Editore, 2004, vol. I, pp. 49-77.

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