Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Laocoon and the Belvedere Apollo

Brian Spencer
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007
Small Presentation

The Laocoon and Belvedere Apollo are both marble statues that now reside in the Vatican Museums, but more importantly, they both provided paragons of art, meaning pieces by which to measure others. They fulfilled this very important role due to the nature of Renaissance thought, in which everything modern was judged by, and often attempted to conform to, the standards of the ancients.

The Laocoon was rediscovered for the last time on January 14, 1506 in a farmer’s field on the Esquiline Hill near Santa Maria Magiore. The discovery sent shockwaves through Rome because the figure and its high quality of workmanship were immediately recognizable. Pliny the Elder’s account of the mammoth statue ties it to classical Rome, and he identifies its sculptors are the three Rhodesian masters of the Hellenistic era Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athenodoros. Further, the statue was unearthed with the only major missing pieces being the right arms of the three figures. Its condition was, therefore, considered almost pristine.

Its size, historical legacy, and condition are not its only features. The subject matter, the Trojan prophet Laocoon’s divine punishment for the famous warning against Greeks with gifts, is especially enthralling. J.J. Winckelmann, often cited as the father of the field of art history, said that especially riveting is “the inevitable mental conflict that arises when one admires the beauty of the Laocoon, but is at the same time painfully aware that the sculpture portrays the final, painful moments of a man who has failed to save his own life and that of his own children.”

This helps to explain the Laocoon’s broad influence on artists from Venetian master painter Titian, in his Crowning with Thorns in the sixteenth century, to Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa in the nineteenth century, and beyond. These two merely provide several concrete examples. It would not be ridiculous to make the audacious claim that Laocoon has influenced a larger body of work than any other single piece of art in history.

The Laocoon’s form, however, has not been a constant since its sixteenth-century rediscovery. There has been long debate over the correct form for the main figure’s right arm. The Renaissance culture that rediscovered the Laocoon felt the need not only to emulate classical forms in their art, but also to “fix” rediscovered classical pieces. This attitude is the origin of not only a multitude of Renaissance marble noses affixed to ancient busts, but also the outstretched arm that the Laocoon bore until the mid twentieth century. This outstretched arm, ironically, was the form that influenced all the artists, but most experts now agree that a recently discovered arm, fully bent back behind the head in a traditional pose of defeat, death or sleep, is that which the figure originally possessed.

The Belvedere Apollo was a “paragon” in the Renaissance art world because it was considered by many experts of the time to epitomize of the ideals of classical antiquity that the Renaissance wanted to recall and emulate. It was a Roman copy of the fourth century BC Greek original, most likely a bronze by Leochares. It was discovered in the quattrocento (fifteenth century) and came to Belvedere Courtyard, from which it takes its name, in 1511. Pope Julius II had it relocated to the Vatican as part of his personal collection.

In his right hand there was initially a laurel bough, symbolizing his healing powers and in his left there was his golden bow. It is in motion, contrary to static, medieval portraiture. It influenced many other works of art including Michelangelo's David and Creation of Adam.

It also shows an interesting trend in the history of Christianity and its relation to art. In the early Middle Ages, pagan images were seen as demonic. For example, the African Christian theologian Arnobius (writing during Diocletian’s reign in the late third century AD) contended that giving human form to stone, metal, other “base” materials is heretical; also, he said that evil inhabits pagan statues. By the reign of Pope Julius II, known as “The Warrior Pope,” the papacy tended to be more concerned with secular power plays than the great hereafter.

Ancient art came to be appreciated purely as “art,” and the common people came to be awed by its beauty rather than to despise it as pagan propaganda. Also, by the time of Julius II, it was being used to aggrandize the papacy by giving it a strong connection to Roman history. The Papacy preserved the art “for the people,” which was to be taken as an act of generosity. This is why the Apollo is a part of Julius II’s Belvedere Courtyard; at the time it was no longer seen as demonic and it served to enhance the prestige of the papacy and aggrandize Julius II.