The Laocoon Statue

Along with the Belvedere Torso, the Laocoon statue is not only one of the most famous marble sculptures in the Vatican, but also one of the most important statues in the world. The famous sculpture is placed in the Octagonal Courtyard inside the Vatican museums.

The statue is of three figures, the Laocoon and his two sons, who are tangled together in an almost life-sized grouping. The statue was carved by the three sculptors Agesander, Polydorus, and Athendorus who came from the island of Rhodes in Greece, where the sculpture was originally created.

Laocoon was the Trojan priest of Apollo who warned the Trojans that the wooden horse that was sent by the Greeks shouldn’t be trusted and might be a trick. Apollo, the powerful Greek god, was so annoyed to be told this that he sent serpents to kill the Laocoon and his two sons. This struggle between the men and the snakes is the subject of the famous sculpture.

laocoon statue in the Vatican Museum

No one knows exactly when the stunning marble was carved. There are numerous time periods as to when this magnificent sculpture was said to be created, but scholars believe it was most likely created between the years 42 to 20 BC. The Vatican’s official website claims that it was carved more precisely between the years 40 to 30 BC, making the piece over 2000 years old. And while that might sound old, the statue is believed to be a copy from an even older original Laocoon cast in bronze dating 200 BC.

The Laocoon was believed to be in the Palace of the Emperor Titus (39AD/81AD) but after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Laocoon statue was lost for a millennium.

In 1506, The Laocoon was rediscovered. It was found buried on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, with quite a few parts missing. The Pope at the time, Pope Julius II, had a particular interest in ancient Greek and Roman sculpting went to the site of the excavation. Pope Julius II had many artists to join him on the discovery including Michelangelo Buonarroti (who two years later was asked to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel but was working on Pope Julius’s tomb at the time he was summoned to the excavation of the long lost Greek marble). 

When the sculpture was removed from the ground, the Laocoon’s right arm was missing. All the artists who joined Pope Julius II on the expedition were asked on how they believed the arm was originally placed. It was generally accepted by the artists that the arm was extended upwards trying to remove one of the serpents. However, Michelangelo suggested that the arm was bent back over his right shoulder in a less heroic pose.

In 1510, the great architect Bramante (who designed most of St. Peter’s Basilica) held a contest to see who could achieve a replacement for the missing right arm of the Laocoon. The sculpture, Jacopo Sansovino won and in 1532 the extended arm

(rather than Michelangelo’s bent back arm suggestion) was placed on the Laocoon where it stayed for almost half a millennium.

The mystery of the arm was finally solved by a Czech archaeologist and art dealer named Ludwig Pollak (b. 1868/d. 1943) who discovered an arm in a Roman construction yard in 1906. He gave it to the Vatican Museums, believing it to be the missing arm of the Laocoon. It was an arm bent back over a shoulder the way Michelangelo 400 years before had believed. The arm was kept in storage in the Vatican museums until 1957 when it was decided that the extended arm that was placed on in 1532 would be removed and the original would be placed back on.

It is believed Michelangelo’s prediction that the arm was bent backward back in 1506 was due to his skills in anatomy and from the muscle structure of the Laocoon and his Sons.

The Laocoon was considered such an important example of Greek sculpture that when Napoleon of France had the statue shipped to Paris in 1799 when conquered Italy. It was put on display in the Louvre in the year 1800 at Napoleon’s own personal museum. After the fall of Napoleon, the Laocoon statue was returned to the Vatican in 1816.

The beauty of the Laocoon statue influenced many artists including Michelangelo for his statue of the Rebellious Slave for Pope Julius II tomb. Raphael modeled the face of the Laocoon for the image of Homer in his fresco of Parnassus in the Raphael Rooms. The Dutch painter, Peter Paul Rubens did over 15 drawings of the Laocoon.

There are quite a few copies of the Laocoon and his sons in museums today. Almost all of these copies have the Laocoons are outstretched as the copies were created before the correct version of the Laocoons arm was discovered in 1906. Some of these copies can be found in the Louvre in Paris and the Uffizi in Florence. There is also a copy on the island of Rhodes in Greece where the statue was carved and interestingly they have now replaced the extended arm back to the original which Michelangelo predicted all those years ago.