Laocoön and his Sons – An Anthropological Analysis

Posted: October 17th, 2013






Laocoön and his Sons – An Anthropological Analysis

The famous Laocoön and His Sons statue that is also called the Laocoön Group is a colossal marble sculpture situated in Rome in the Vatican Museums. The effigy was attributed to three sculptors: Athenodoros, Polydorus and Agesander by Pliny, a Roman author. The statue was a life size work measuring about 1.74 meters that displayed Laocoön, a Trojan priest and his two sons Thymbraeus and Antiphantes who were entwined by marine serpents. The historical background of the Laocoön and His Sons statue states that Laocoön was murdered after trying to expose the fraud of the Trojan Horse by attacking it with a lance. Being experienced and wise, Laocoön was skeptical of the strange ‘gift’ horse left by the Greeks after the war.

However, his opposition to the idea of taking the horse as spoils of war was interpreted by Trojans as a punishment by the gods for defying destiny. The Laocoön itself is a multifaceted and authoritative work of art that attracts the eye with the extensive, flowing lines of the serpents’ bodies. The serpents wind and pull slyly against the menacing bonds and the hurting and anguish of the priest is very apparent and touching. The sons seek their father’s assistance and he is incapable of helping them, or himself. Laocoön’s wide-open mouth is so superbly detailed one can almost hear his livid scream. The pain of betrayal, by both the Trojans and his gods, is splayed all over Laocoön’s face as clearly as fright is written on his sons’.



The Roman cultural Context in which the Laocoön existed

Ancient Rome was typically considered one of the largest empires globally that existed for about twelve centuries. In terms of organization, The Roman society was greatly advanced in warfare, engineering, politics, law, art, language, architecture, technology, government, religion and literature (Smedley 21). Apart from this, the Roman cukture was deeply anthropocentric. The people were te main focus within society. Romans had begun to enjoy advanced technology such as asphalt roads, storied buildings and other public facilities such as monuments and art galleries (Smedley 19). It is against this backdrop of advanced civilization that the Laocoön was sculpted in honor of the rich religious and mythical history of Rome. The Roman society was well organized into urban centers and military settlements having large populations. However, within these settlements there were distinct class structures that divided people into slaves, freedmen and freeborn citizens. The Roman culture was rich in various elements of interest for example, the Colosseum, the Pantheon and other facilities for example, theaters and public baths that were not affected by acculturation. Most of the social activities within Rome happened within these locations and the constant use made them quite significant. The Laocoön held a religious and social significance upon the people of Rome and this made it an even greater sculpture as compared to other works of art (Smedley 16). This emic behavior by the Romans was vital in shaping the global perception on the Laocoön (Smedley 25). This is because in other parts of the world, acculturation played a major role in changing people’s cultures and tastes.

The development of Roman sculpture was influenced chiefly by contact with other neighboring societies. Romans initially focused on producing life-size replicas of prominent and victorious personalities within their society. Religious deities were part of this description. Portraiture and religious art were the two main specialties of Roman sculpture (Gupta & Ferguson 11). Most entrance halls of Roman architecture were decorated with life-size sculptures and portrait busts. Concerning religious art, the Roman temple was the center for display of several statues of deities and gods. Roman altars in backyards and gardens also had similar statues. Another secondary form or art related to the two was funerary art that displayed the everyday activities by Romans such as agriculture, war and other games. The statue of Laocoön and His Sons was therefore a significant part of the Roman history and heritage that served as a constant reminder of the belief system and great gods that ruled over Rome. In general,., the level of cultural relativism was very low as most Roman artists focused mainly on their type of art.

Influence of the Laocoön statue

The statue is a major part of the Roman culture that dates back to 50 BC and having close similarity to the Alcyoneus statue dated 160 BC. On the day of discovery, the statue was slightly destroyed with Laocoön‘s right arm missing as well as one arm on the child. Finally, the whole sculpture was torn down and restored with the arm properly in place (Gupta & Ferguson 29). During the course of disassembly, the engineers were able to scrutinize the cuttings, breaks, dowel holes, and metal tenons that suggested that in antiquity, a more solid, three-dimensional pyramidal assembly of the three sculptures was used or at least considered. The discovery of the Laocoön statue made a great impact on Italian artists and extensively influenced the development of Italian Renaissance art. The great Michelangelo was particularly influenced by the colossal scale of the work and its sumptuous Hellenistic aesthetics, particularly its representation of the male figures. The discovery of the Laocoön was a very important finding for educated Renaissance artists and clients who were bent on restoring the ancient Roman culture (Gupta & Ferguson 19).

The sculpture managed to raise significant religious attention in Rome. At one point, Pope Julius II procured the sculpture for his own collection, after which he paraded the sculpture through the streets of the Rome where the citizens showered it with flower petals. Within art circles, there was a flurry of contests hosted by Donato Bramante to develop a replica of the spoilt parts of the sculpture. The ancient Laocoön also exerted a strong aesthetic power on the High Renaissance artists. The unearthing of the sculpture also speeded up the rediscovery of the classical aesthetic. The Laocoön became a benchmark against which Renaissance art was evaluated, thereby instituting a standard of beauty that influenced art for the next 500 years.

By far, Michelangelo was the artist most influenced by the Laocoön, whose representation of the human figure in motion was fundamentally changed by his study of the Laocoön. The work also intensely influenced the development of the western art. Raphael’s painting the Galatea was a response to the sculpture as well as the efforts of Titian in Venice and his Greek apprentice, El Greco. Rubens sketched the Laocoön based the foundation of most of his paintings on the prehistoric sculpture. Even Gericault, the French artist included Laocoön -like elements into his prominent political work, The Raft of the Medusa. Apart from artists, the unearthing of the sculpture was of great importance to political figures.

Historically, Francis I, king of France had shown interest in the marvelous work of art and had requested the Pope to give him sculpture as a spoil of war. Therefore, the Pope had a fake replica made in case King Francis became persistent. However, this did not happen but later on, during Napoleon’s reign, the Laocoön soon found itself in France where it stayed for several years until he was defeated. The Laocoön is however not exceptional. Without a doubt, it has been applied too often as a model. Indeed, the creative and chronological life of historical sculpture in contemporary times has probably been based on uplifting individual projects to paradigmatic ranks, and not only the Laocoön.

One of the influential people surrounding the Laocoön, El Greco was an academic that had experience in Venetian ‘colorito’ and Renaissance compositional methods. Later on, he developed his eclectic fashion, becoming a principal artist in the Mannerist faction and embracing the Spanish artistic Renaissance. These two styles were evident within Laocoön; El Greco’s solitary painting on a mythological theme. While classical in nature, Laocoön mirrors the artistic, religious, and political revolutions of post-Renaissance society. The Laocoön originated from the Hellenistic Era when Greek art transformed from the quite stiff and motionless art and the romanticized forms of earlier periods, into a more innate free flowing art full of zeal and sensation, whilst keeping a number of the features of preceding periods. Most Hellenistic works of art did not survive the journey to present day, and most instructors depend on Roman replicas for their teaching needs (Gupta & Ferguson 62).

George E. Marcus multi-sided strategy

Multi-sited ethnography is a technique of data collection that tracks a theme or social issue through diverse field sites socially or geographically (Kuhn 12). While different methods can be applied independently, multi-sited ethnography typically demands the use of supplementary techniques like surveys, planned interviews or other data collection methods. Marcus stated that in the research process, scientists could pursue a “thing”. In the case of the Laocoön, following a “thing” would offer the best results in multi-sited ethnography, and this involves tracing the geographical journey and social implication of the statue through Europe. When this type of strategy concentrates on tracking the statue, examiners trace signs and representations, or symbolic interpretations of the Laocoön in the lives of the Roman people and any other societies it may have met on its journey (Gupta & Ferguson 67).

The Laocoön statue was initially sculpted at around 40-20 BCE by three artists: Athenodorus, Agesander and Polydorus. While it was originally situated in Rhodes, the next valid account of its whereabouts placed the statue in Emperor Titus’ palace at around 70 BC. It was in his palace that the fancy description written in Latin was born. The description displayed the Laocoön as being ‘…sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the serpents with their marvelous folds (Kuhn 28).’ In January 1506, the same statue was discovered in a vineyard on the Oppian Hill. This discovery was made by Guiliano da Sangallo and Michelangelo working under the instructions of Pope Julius II (Gupta & Ferguson 24).

After this unearthing, the statue fell in the hands of the Pope who elevated it to the level of a deity. This discovery also triggered interest among other European artists for example Giovanni Antonio da Brescia, Marcantonio Raimondi and Jacopo Sansovino who experimented with wax, canvas and stone. By 1770, Raphael Mengs had already sculpted a replica of the Laocoön that was being displayed in Florence (Gupta & Ferguson 22). The original Laocoön was also shifted to Paris under immense political pressure from the Treaty of Tolentino. There, it underwent several restorations. The sculpture had traversed through France, Italy, parts of Germany and Romania. Therefore, the sculpture has had several contact with different societies and been used for its aesthetic beauty, religious relevance and architectural complexity. However, the Roman influence has greatly overwhelmed all the other aspects of the statue (Kuhn 25).

Roman perception of the Laocoön

The statement made by Pliny when he was rating the sculpture was a summary of the perceptions of most Romans and art enthusiasts across the globe. Pliny commented that the Laocoön was “…a work that must be considered superior to all other products of the arts of painting and sculpture” (Turner 19). This figure was a very passionate dramatization of the anguish of Laocoön and his sons, portraying in complete practicality the pain that can befall human beings. The serpents fuse the three people, taking the viewer from one person to the next. Every area of Laocoön’s visage portrays his anguish, from his furrowed forehead to the half-shut eyes and parted mouth. All the three individuals are illustrated as being in a reminiscent state of pain. Every single inch of the sculpture exhibits torment and suffering.

Among the Romans, the Laocoön statue represented an amazing illustration of the methods that artists used for instance, the dramatic baroque effects. Laocoön cocked his head, as he stared at the heavens with a wrinkled temple and his facial hair in complete disorder. Laocoön’s facial appearance communicated certain misery, agony, and surprise at the basis for such an atrocious attack. Meanwhile, his son’s head was tilted backward from the sting of the beast biting into his upper body (Turner 26). The features contained in this group of sculptures particularly the facial expressions and the complexity of the bodily fine points portray emotions of fright, agony and disbelief as the family struggled to understand why the gods and their fellow men would betray and feed them to serpents (Turner 27).


            In conclusion, the beforehand arguments and illustrations have managed to demonstrate the main reasons as to why the Laocoön statue was considered a significant element of the Hellenistic baroque, a religious deity and an informative piece of learning material. The illustration of feats and emotions, the pleasure of triumph and the anguish of loss all coalesce to deliver a much more practical, naturalistic and aesthetically satisfying work than those from the previous periods. The motivational influence that it had on later artists, for example Michelangelo makes the Laocoön even more significant to the future generations (Turner 21).


Work Cited

Gupta, A, and Ferguson J. Beyond “culture”: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference. Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology. 1999. Print.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

Smedley, A. Race and the Construction of Human Identity. American Anthropologist. 100.3. 1998: 690-702. Print.

Turner, Victor. Process, System, and Symbol: a New Anthropological Synthesis. Daedalus. 106.3. 1977: 61-80. Print.

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