The Laocoon Group—My Favorite Greek Mythology Sculpture of the Vatican Museum


The Laocoon Group sculpture in the Vatican Museum. Rome, Italy.
The Laocoon Group sculpture in the Vatican Museums. Rome, Italy.

The Laocoon sculpture is a perfectly performed Death itself. I was a child when I first saw this statue. I did not realize its value. I just looked at the beautiful bodies of a grandfather and his grandchildren. Oh yes, I did not know it was the Trojan priest Laocoon and his sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. If there is a beard, then he must be an old man, period! But this old man was in such perfect physical condition that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I guess the ancient Greeks knew some kind of secret of getting into such a shape and keeping it without using the steroids that we need nowadays in order to recreate such an appearance.

This is the only statue that in my childhood I failed to draw successfully from the catalogue due to the huge amount of detail. It was much easier with Venus de Milo or Apollo sculptures. And now just imagine how much effort it took to cut it out from a solid marble block. As I learned later, there were two blocks, but still, does it make the process easier?

Venus de Milo. Louvre Museum, Paris, France.
Venus de Milo. Louvre Museum, Paris, France.
The Apollo Belvedere or Apollo of the Belvedere.The Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy.
The Apollo Belvedere or Apollo of the Belvedere. The Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy.

I was 12 or 13 years old when our parents brought my brother and me to Hermitage, the museum in St. Petersburg, and I saw the real–as I thought–statue of Laocoon. The famous ancient sculpture was unbelievably huge and absolutely alive. Seems it was changing right in front of your eyes if you watched it riveted and then closed your eyes and opened them again. But I still did not realize that in fact this sculpture symbolized an awful death.

To compare it to modern times, it’s just as if someone created a statue demonstrating the death of a Jewish family in a gas chamber in the fascist Auschwitz concentration camp, but it was beyond my childish understanding back then. I kept trying to understand how they could cut it out from a stone. How did those three geniuses from Rhodes–Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus–draw this scene out in their minds or on a paper, or maybe on the marble block itself? But this image would be two-dimensional, and the result would become three-dimensional.

If you ask me what really remained in my childhood memory after visiting Hermitage in St. Petersburg, I would say: Laocoon with his sons, and black Atlantes outside the Hermitage supporting the roof of the Winter Palace gallery. As you see, in both cases it is about the powerful, well-muscled bodies of real men. I guess even at that time, there was a sleeping fitness-coach inside of me which awakened only at the age of 29.

Now, 40 years later, I am standing in front of the original statue of the Laocoön group in the small sculpture court of the Belvedere museum in the Vatican. Oh God, the statue is so small! I remember the huge and powerful one.

It’s just because the boy has grown up, but the statue has not.

Laocoon and his sons statue. Winter Palace, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Laocoon and his sons statue. Winter Palace, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Laocoon and his sons statue in the Palazzo Grimani. Venice, Italy.
Laocoon and his sons statue in the Palazzo Grimani. Venice, Italy.

When, after ten years of siege, the ancient Greeks despaired of conquering the city of Troy, they decided to use a trick: they built a huge wooden horse and hid a troop of well-armed warriors inside it, while they themselves boarded a ship and left Troy. The Trojans’ happiness knew no bounds. They had won, the siege was lifted, and the enemies had retreated leaving a souvenir for them. So, immediately, it had to be dragged into the city, even if a part of the defensive wall needed to be demolished for that.

Kind of ridiculous, isn’t it? Can you imagine if after 800 days of the Leningrad siege, the Hitlerites unexpectedly went away, having left a huge, beautifully painted panzer as a present to the defenders of the city? And what is more beyond belief, the happy citizens of Leningrad dragged this panzer into their city without even taking a look inside?!

However, it happened that there was at least one person in Troy who stayed in his right mind–the priest Laocoön. He ferociously protested against taking this “gift” into the city, assuming there was something dangerous inside it, presaging the disaster to the whole city in the end. But he did not know that the fall of Troy was expected by more powerful forces than a troop of Greeks who wanted only to ravage the rich city on the pretext of releasing the “captured” Helen of Troy.

As soon as Laocoon got to the seashore together with his sons in order to make sacrifice to the gods in hopes of averting the disasters, those same gods, in the person of Athena set two sea serpents on them. Those snakes wrapped themselves around their bodies and started to strangle and tear them apart. This very moment was captured by Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus in their immortal creation of art–the moment of the death of Laocoon and his family.

We can only rejoice that Laocoon and his sons were going to perform the sacrificial ritual absolutely naked, which would in reality be inherently out of the question. However, had it not been for this creative urge of the authors to implement the Greek fairytale into the marble, we might never have seen the paragon of the masculine figure of two generations.

Laocoon and his sons statue in the Palazzo Grimani. Venice, Italy.
Laocoon and his sons statue in the Palazzo Grimani. Venice, Italy.

But we need to get back to history here.

Initially the sculpture of Laocoon was cast in bronze, and later copied in the marble version. The bronze statue did not survive as the metal was highly valued, and obviously this work of art could have been melted down for some other needs. The marble copy has survived to modern times, and if it is worse than the original, then I just can’t imagine how it could have looked in bronze.

Pliny the Elder thought this sculptural composition was the best among all embodiments of Laocoon’s theme; however, it had also been lost until 1506 when an Italian villager suddenly discovered it in his own garden. Experts who were called upon identified it as the statue described by Pliny the Elder. By the way, Michelangelo Buonarroti was one of those experts.

Pope Giulio proposed that Michelangelo recreate the missing arms of Laocoon and his younger son, but the master refused. At first glance it seems to be a rather strange decision. Such a proposal means fame and money. The master found an elegant excuse: My skill cannot be compared to the talents of the ancient Greeks.

Well, it can, dear maestro, it surely can, but probably there had been some other grounds. I assume it could be the unwillingness to work the masterpieces of other artists, because this statue would never be called the “Laocoon by Michelangelo,” but every single piece of your art should bear only your name.

The Laocoon’s missing arm was recreated by one of Michelangelo’s students, and all subsequent copies have been created with a right hand extended upwards. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the original arm was unexpectedly found in Italy and it turned out to be bent back! It makes us wonder: Did Michelangelo know or feel something when he rejected the proposal to create the new right arm of Laocoon?

With or without the arm, the death scene of the father and two of his sons has become one of the greatest creations of world art, exerting a massive impact on the oeuvre of many further generations of artists.

More about Italy:
Decorated Ceilings of Vatican Museums or Interview with God
Hadrian’s Villa, Villa d’Este, and Tivoli are Three Different Planets! The Last is the Worst!
My God, How I Love Italy!

14 thoughts on “The Laocoon Group—My Favorite Greek Mythology Sculpture of the Vatican Museum

  1. Thank you Victor. My wife and I are about to set off on a Mediterranean cruise. We will see both the Grimani Laocoon and the the one at the Vatican. I’m and Professor emeritus of drawing and painting, so I’m familiar with the history, legends and aesthetics. Still, reading your personal accounts adds to my anticipation. You may wonder, why a professor of art had not saught out classical art history sooner. I taught modern and contemporary painting and am just now feeling an emotional
    pull back toward the classics.


    1. Thank you, Ronald.
      A cruise is wonderful thing as I suppose, and the Mediterranean cruise is two fold wonderful. I never had a chance to relax on a big ship, only on small ones and yachts. I hope you will enjoy it.


  2. It is amazing how much emotion the sculptor can draw out of a rock. How wonderful for us that these masterpieces are preserved for us to admire so many centuries later. You’ve done a great job of bringing this to us, Victor. How close do they allow visitors to approach the Laocoon sculpture?


      1. That’s pretty close (compared to the Mona Lisa). As for the Italian peasant – can you just imagine the thrill of finding a treasure like that!!! I guess that was the end of his tomato garden. They would have excavated most of his yard to remove that sculpture.


          1. I wondered about that. Or did the “officials” tell him that it was his duty to hand it over because it belonged to the state and he maybe got nothing for it except a torn up property. It would be interesting to know.


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