recappin the classics

Athanadorus, Hagesandros and Polydorus, Laocoön and his sons, from Rome, early first century AD. Marble. 1.84 metres high. (Musei Vaticani, Rome).

Of all the Roman copies of Greek masterpieces, Laocoön is amongst my faves of all time. Not only is it fiercely striking with some hypnotic Medusa effect going on but the story behind it (The Iliad) and what it represents solidifies its place as one of the bestest of the best for me. And as it is so goddamn old, there’s so much to say about it! It’s a work of art that has influenced the drawing styles of peeps like Michelangelo and Titian…all those big league Renaissance cats….in fact, the excavation probably couldn’t have come at a more exciting time as the Renaissance would have been in full swing and classical ideals were held in the highest regard.

So here’s a short, straightforward essay on the work that I wrote in my first year of uni! Have to say, my referencing has sincerely improved….

The marble group, Laocoön, is an illustrious canonical work of western tradition, depicting the writhing figure of the Trojan priest between his two sons, tangled in the serpents’ constricting coils. This realistic yet theatrical presentation of complex positioning, with elements of istorie are characteristics that typify the High Hellenistic phase. Also trending within the age was what is referred to as ‘Hellenistic Baroque’. An interest in emotion produced sculptures displaying pleasure, or suffering and anguish like Laocoön and his sons. There is a strong pyramidal arrangement of the figures, perfected by Athanadorus, Hagesandros and Polydorus; the group was likely to be based upon a Hellenistic sculpture portraying Laocoön accompanied by only one son.[1] By simply incorporating an extra form, the sculptors have not only conformed to Virgil’s narrative in the Aeneid, they have created a far superior composition with both balance and dynamism.

The dramatic gestures and twisted poses convey the struggle and gruesome fate of Laocoön and his sons, who were eventually strangled to death by sea serpents sent by Poseidon. Presenting them at the mercy of the serpents strikes the viewer almost as violently as the action taking place. This expressionistic baroque style invokes pathos, compassion and panic, complying with the rules of tragedy as formulated by Aristotle.[2] The sculptors were successful in grasping an image of despair and terror, with pain etched across Laocoön’s face. His single crime being; the distressed intention to warn his country of its doom and the evil lurking in the stomach of the infamous Trojan Horse. The destruction of Ilium was preordained as the gods had already decided upon its fall, thus it was essential that Laocoön was silenced. In acknowledging this certain tragedy within the epic, the poignancy of the sculpture is all the more enhanced as he and his sons were merely victims of fate. This emotional response to the sculpture moves us to search for underlying connotations and we are able to relate and comment on the precariousness of humankind, offering us a critical lesson in humility.

© Giulio Menna, 2011

Verisimilitude is not entirely significant in the depiction of Laocoön himself; the sculptors would intentionally include physical features that would make the subjects recognisable to the viewer. However, the subject of the group is undeniably the death of Laocoön – his two sons and the snakes functioning as revealing indications. Yet although there are elements of realism seen in the faces, there is noticeably some exaggerated musculature of Laocoön’s torso as he twists away from the serpent’s bite. There is an inconsistency in the naturalistic portrayal, as we are presented with a youthful, strong body with the head of an old, bearded man. In fact, his powerful torso dominates the entire group whilst the youngest son succumbs to the serpents’ entwining suffocation and appears to be falling backwards on to the altar at which they officiated. The older son is captured, making a vain effort at escaping amongst the high drama occurring next to him.

Laocoon and his sons leg close up


The meandering snake-entangled bodies are often compared to the figures of the renowned frieze of the Altar of Zeus in Pergamon.[3] Like the Laocoön, the work is a dramatic Hellenistic masterpiece capable of invoking compassion in the viewer. The one hundred and twenty metre-long battle depiction surrounds the base of the altar and is one of the best preserved high-relief sculptures of Greek antiquity. The battle portrayed, shows scenes of the Olympian gods beating, stabbing and strangling the protesting giants who are defending themselves in a futile struggle. The Athene plate in particular pulls the giant, Alcyoneus, up by his hair; his facial expression and posture like that of Laocoön’s. We can see distinct similarities in their rolling wide eyes, thick furrowed brows and outward protruding stomachs in a convulsing tension, showing a present fear of death in both works. It is notable that both also contain snakes, with Athene’s threatening snake crushing the figure of Alcyoneus by his limbs, about to take a fatal bite out of his chest. Hellenist baroque no longer produced static and calm sculptures like that of its classical roots but put emphasis on the realism of a moment and concentration on emotional and real mental states, in relationship to the physical.



[Difficult to decipher buuuttttt I think that Zeus hurls bolts of lightning against two young Giants and their leader, Porphyrion (left) ; Athene and Nike fight Alcyoneus and Gaia rises up from the ground (right)]

Although it has been compared to other sculptures, the work is almost unrivalled in its acclaimed status and is admiringly considered “superior to anything produced in painting or sculpture”[4] by writers such as Pliny. The work was later admired by influential eighteenth-century art critic, Winckelmann. He fervently speaks of the concept of the ideal and beautiful that this sculpture embodies in its skilled rendering, yet engraved on the faces of the figures are expressions of hopelessness and horror. As one serpent bites down upon Laocoön’s hip on the left side, the priest cries out in agony:

“Just as the depth of the ocean is always calm, however much the surface may be raging, the expression in the figures of the Greeks, whatever their passion, displays a large and composed soul. This soul is written in Laocoön’s face, and not just in the face, in the presence of intense suffering.”[5

The excavation of the Laocoön in 1506 called upon  Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who immediately recognised it from Pliny’s accounts. It’s representation of a heroic struggle and powerful muscular anatomy had an immense impact on Italian Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo. Laocoön and his sons served him as a model for figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco such as Jonah[6] where this is evident in the contorted pose and over-muscled body. Since the Renaissance, it has been regarded as a prominent representative of antiquity. It was once thought to originate from the Greek Hellenistic period, imported to Rome but is now believed to be the work created by Greek sculptors, executed in the revival of Hellenistic style for a patron.

Artists of ancient Greece were once celebrated and respected; a majority of them, employed by the Romans, were of Greek descent and were imported as early as 500BC during the Republic. A great demand for Greek works accelerated after the sack of Corinth (146BC), where the Romans seized a number of impressive sculptures, bringing them to Italy. Yet, throughout both the Republic and the Empire, most Greek sculptors became anonymous labourers, although it was understood that they signified an established and accomplished tradition. They provided the Romans with copies of Classical and Hellenistic pieces, alongside sculptures commissioned by wealthy Roman patrons. Workshops were erected where artists would collaborate, suppressing their individual creativity in the notion of making a combined piece of art. Laocoön is one such work like this, attributed to the sculptors, Athanadorus, Hagesandros and Polydorus of Rhodes.

Their combined effort created a celebrated masterpiece and “made visible every impulse of nature and displayed [their] great science and art”[7]. The sculpture is successful at convincingly depicting the vivid description of the tragedy in the Aeneid, conveying some of the most intense human emotions which, in turn, move us and we too, are lost in the serpents’ coils plunging deep into despair, sharing their fears. However, amongst all the sorrow and suffering, we are confronted with the tormented soul of a courageous man whose only desire is to live, profoundly echoing the essence of mankind.


laocoon close up





Wincklemann, Johann J. (2006). History of the Art of Antiquity. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute Publications.


Pedley, John G. (2007). Greek Art and Archaeology. (4th Ed.) Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Chamoux, Franҫois. (1966). Greek Art. (Vol. 2.) Milan, Italy: Amilcare Pizzi S.p.A.


Kleiner, Fred S. (2010). Gardner’s Art Throughout the Ages – The Western Perspective. (13th Ed.) (International Student Edition). United States of America: Clark Baxter.


Wilkins D.G., Schultz B., Linduff K.M. (2005). Art Past Art Present. (5th Ed.) Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Siebler, Michael. (2007). Greek Art. Germany: Taschen.