The so-called ‘Laocoon’ is a large, marble statuary group in the Vatican Museum, prominently housed among other Greco-Roman sculptures and famous since its discovery in Rome in 1506. The group consists of three male figures struggling with encircling serpents, dominated by the central figure of a powerfully muscled mature male whose tense body and tortured expression have long drawn the attention of artists, including Michelangelo, and of all who respond to forceful imagery in a work of art.
Flanking the central figure on each side a youth appears, no less ensnared in the serpents’ toils and attempting to free himself, unsuccessfully. Although not addressing the spectator directly, all three figures implicate the viewer emotionally, as if to appeal for compassion towards these unfortunates in their plight. Although fully carved in the round and exhibiting a virtuosic technique of masterful carving, the three figures, constituting this sculptural group, were clearly intended to be seen from in front as a three-dimensional tableau displayed against a wall or niche.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that such a complicated, attention-getting group was not provided with a burden of meaning, transcending the particularity of the emotional response. A sensible viewer would naturally respond to the struggles of the group and to the fatal danger presented by the serpents with their gaping jaws. Who is not afraid of such serpents? The expressive mode of the three intertwined human figures surely elicits an emotional response, perhaps as the primary reaction to the work. But, the specificity of the representation, the generational distinction between the older and younger males, indicating a parental relationship, and the desperate character of the tableau altogether suggest the presence of a specific subject which has informed the work as a whole.
The discovery of that subject requires both an investigation of cognate motifs in Greco-Roman art, the appropriate frame of reference among the Vatican’s Classical Collections; it also requires a high degree of attention to the particular story, or myth, that provided the underlying, explanatory narrative that tied human figures and serpents together.
Generations of scholars, connoisseurs, and artists have long recognized the singularity of the group’s imagery and associated it with the story of the Trojan priest, especially as given by Vergil, ‘Aeneid’ II.40-56, 199-231 and other ancient authors. Laocoon, priest of Apollo, was punished with death for a breach in his duties, and his sons perished with him. Attributed to the Rhodian sculptors, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, the ‘Laocoon’ group was celebrated by the Roman author, Pliny in his ‘Natural History’ 36.37 as a masterpiece, and it figured centrally in the influential works on aesthetics and reception, written by Winckelmann and by Lessing in the mid-eighteenth century.
It is unlikely that the ordinary viewer today would know the sculpture’s history, nor would such a viewer be aware of the classical myth lying behind the represented drama which infuses the group with its intensity. Maybe not, but a competent, inquiring viewer should sense that the ‘Laocoon’ group functions as an enactment of some significant event in visual form. That event, in the context of ancient art, which involves nude or nearly nude male figures, is more likely to be derived from a mythic repertoire, rather than from history. Mythic representation relies on story to intensify the reception of complex truths more effectively. Such myths offer a gloss on the human condition, vulnerable to the onslaught of forces beyond our control, unsuspecting either a tragic intervention or a calamitous change in fortune. The generic quality of mythic representations, which embody truths or admonitions, consequential to human actions, can therefore be subject to ambivalent, still effective interpretations.
See Richard Brilliant, My Laocoon: Alternative Claims in the Interpretation of Artworks, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.