Some Sculptures In The Vatican
( Originally Published 1920 )
BY A. J. C. HARE.
THE 1st Cabinet, of "The Laocoon." This wonderful group was discovered by Felice de Fredis in his vineyard near the Sette Sale on the Esquiline, in 1506, while Michelangelo was at Rome, under Julius II., but it narrowly escaped destruction under Adrian VI., who turned away from it shuddering, and ex-claiming: "Idol of the Pagans." The right arm of the father was missing at the time of the discovery, and is a terra-cotta restoration, and is said to be the work of A. Cornacchini, as also are the arms of the sons. There is now no doubt that "The Laocoon" is the group slightly misdescribed by Pliny.
"An original work by Agesander and his sons, of Rhodes."-Helbig.
"The fame of many sculptors is less diffused, because the number employed upon great works prevented their celebrity; for there is no one artist to receive the honor of the work, and where there are more than one, they cannot all obtain an equal fame. Of this `The Laocoon' is an example, which stands in the palace of the Emperor Titus-a work which may be considered superior to all others both in painting and statuary. The whole group-the father, the boys, and the awful folds of the serpents-were formed out of a single block, in accordance with a -vote of the senate, by Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, Rhodian sculptors of the highest merit"-Pliny, lib. xxxvi. c. 4.
"Turning to the Vatican, go see
"The subject of `The Laocoon' is a disagreeable one, but whether we consider the grouping or the execution, nothing that remains to us of antiquity can surpass it. It consists of a father and his two sons. Byron thinks that Laocoon's anguish is absorbed in that of his children, that a mortal's agony is blending with an immortal's patience. Not so. Intense physical suffering, against which he pleads with an upraised countenance of despair, and appeals with a sense of its injustice, seems the predominant and overwhelming emotion, and yet there is a nobleness in the expression, and a majesty that dignifies torture.
"We now come to his children. Their features and attitudes indicate the excess of the filial love and devotion that animates them, and swallows up all other feelings. In the elder of the two this is particularly observable. His eyes are fixedly bent on Laocoonhis whole soul is with, is a part of that of his father. His arm extended towards him, not for protection, but a wish as if instinctively to afford it, absolutely speaks. Nothing can be more exquisite than the contour of his form and face, and the moulding of his lips, that are half open, as if in the act of-not uttering any unbecoming complaint, or prayer, or lamentation, which he is conscious are alike useless-but addressing words of consolatory tenderness to his unfortunate parent. The intensity of his bodily torments is only expressed by the uplifting of his right foot, which he is vainly and impotently attempting to extricate from the grasp of the mightly folds in which it is entangled.
"In the younger child, surprise, pain, and grief seem to contend for the mastery. He is not yet arrived at an age when his mind has sufficient self-possession or fixedness of reason to analyze the calamity that is overwhelming himself and all that is dear to him. He is sick with pain and horror. We almost seem to hear his shrieks. His left hand is on the head of the snake, that is burying its fangs in his side, and the vain and fruitless attempt he is making to disengage it increases the effect. Every limb, every muscle, every vein of Laocoon expresses, with the fidelity of life, the working of the poison, and the strained girding round of the inextricable folds, whose tangling sinuosities are too numerous and complicated to be followed. No chisel has ever displayed with such anatomical fidelity and force the projecting muscles of the arm, whose hand clenches the neck of the reptile, almost to strangulation; and the mouth of the enormous asp, and his terrible fangs widely displayed, in a moment to penetrate and meet within its victim's heart, make the spectator of this miracle of sculpture turn away with shuddering and awe, and doubt the reality of what he sees."-Shelley.
"The circumstance of the two sons being so much smaller than the father has been criticised by some, but this seems to have been necessary to the harmony of the composition. The same apparent disproportion exists between Niobe and her children in the celebrated group at Florence, supposed to be by Scopas. The raised arms of the three figures are all restorations, as are some portions of the serpent. Originally, the raised hands of the old man rested on his head, and the traces of the junction are clearly discernible. For this we have also the evidence of an antique gem, on which it is thus engraved. This work was found in the Baths (?) of Titus, in the reign of Julius II., by a certain Felix de Fredis, who received half the revenue of the gabella of the Porta San Giovanni as a reward, and whose epitaph, in the Church of Ara Coeli, records the fact" Shakspere Wood.
The 2d Cabinet contains "The Apollo Belvedere," found in the sixteenth century on a farm of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere; near Grotto, Ferrata, and purchased by Julius II. for the Belvedere Palace, which was at that time a garden pavilion separated from the rest of the Vatican, and used as a museum of sculpture. It is now held certain that this statue, beautiful as it is, is not the original work of a Greek sculptor, but a Roman first-century copy. Four famous statues of Apollo are mentioned by Pliny as existing at Rome in his time, but this is not one of them. Mrs. Siddons said of the Apollo Belvedere : "What a great idea it gives one of God to think that He has created a human being capable of fashioning so divine a form !" 2
Or view the Lord of the unerring bow,
"Bright kindling with a conqueror's stern delight, His keen eye tracks the arrow's fateful flight; Burns his indignant cheek with vengeful fire, And his lip quivers with insulting ire : Firm fix'd his tread, yet light, as when on high He walks th' impalpable and pathless sky: The rich luxuriance of his hair, confined In graceful ringlets, wantons on the wind, That lifts in sport his mantle's drooping fold, Proud to display that form of faultless mould.
Mighty Ephesian! with an eagle's flight Thy proud soul mounted through the fields of light, View'd the bright conclave of Heaven's blest abode, And the cold marble leapt to life a god: Contagious awe through breathless myriads ran, And nations bow'd before the work of man : For mild he seem'd, as in Elysian bowers, Wasting in careless ease the joyous hours; Haughty, as bards have sung, with princely sway Curbing the fierce flame-breathing steeds of day; Beauteous as vision seen in dreamy sleep By holy maid on Delphi's haunted steep, 'Mid the dim twilight of the laurel grove, Too fair to worship, too divine to love."
"It incorporates in the most striking manner what the Greeks called a 'Theophany,' i.e., the sudden. appearance in the material universe of a hitherto invisible Deity."-Helbig.