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Laokoön and His Sons

Laokoön and His SonsLaokoön and His Sons
by Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athenadoros of Rhodes
probably 1st century A.D. copy of 2nd century B.C. original

In the tenth year of the Trojan War, the weary Greeks were still unable to storm Troy’s fortifications, and thus they concocted a ruse as a last effort toward victory. Appearing to abandon the war and sail home, they left behind a massive wooden horse, allegedly a thank-offering to Athena. The Trojans gathered outside the city to decide what to do with the mysterious horse. Laokoön, a priest of Poseidon, advised destroying the horse, famously exclaiming, "I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts!" With that, he hurled a spear into the side of the horse, nearly revealing the Greek warriors hidden inside. Immediately after, two enormous sea serpents rose from the sea and killed Laokoön and his sons, silencing any further dire prophesies from the priest. The Trojans took this as a bad omen and did not heed Laokoön’s warning. They then hauled the cursed horse into the city walls.

The Laokoön illustrates the most dramatic moment of the story: the death of the family as the serpents kill the two boys and their father. The first son has already collapsed in death while the father reacts to a fatal bite. The other son attempts to free himself from the serpent’s coils while looking back horrified at the fate of his family. The exaggerated musculature of Laokoön is emphasized as he struggles in vain to extricate himself from the snakes. The faces of the three figures depict their horror and agony. This graphic illustration of emotion, exaggerated musculature, and violent composition is typical of Hellenistic art from the second century B.C. onward. Also new in the Hellenistic Period is the pyramidal composition, which forces the viewer to walk around the piece to fully appreciate the scene.

In 1506, the Laokoön and His Sons was discovered inside the Sette Sale (holding tanks for the baths of Trajan on the Esquiline Hill in Rome). Pope Julius II at once brought the sculpture to be displayed in the Vatican collections, where it was drawn and studied by many famous artists, including Michelangelo. The composition was highly praised and had a great impact on Renaissance art. The Laokoön is associated with an account by Pliny, the Roman historian, who described a first century A.D. sculpture of Laokoön that stood in the house of the Emperor Titus. Most scholars now believe that the work is a Roman copy of a second-century B.C. Hellenistic masterpiece.

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