Agony—The famous group of Laocoon
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
This was discovered on the Esquiline, in 1506, when Julian II was pope. Subsequently, it narrowly escaped being destroyed by Adrian VI, who, when he beheld it, turned away shuddering, as he exclaimed, " idol of the pagans ! " The group is in Pentelic marble and consists of several blocks of stone. The three uplifted arms have been restored, by Cornacchini and Montorsoli, not, however, by Michelangelo, as some have said.
It was formerly thought that this was the group which stood in Titus' palace, referred to by Pliny in his thirty-sixth book : " The fame of many sculptors is less diffused, because the number employed upon great works prevented the celebrity of each; 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 other productions, both in painting and statuary. The whole group,- the father, the boys and the awful folds of the serpent,- 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."
Notwithstanding the fact that the three names mentioned above are cut on the figures of this group, modern art criticism is almost unanimously agreed that what we have here is not the original, but a most wonderful copy; and this opinion is strengthened by the fact that this group is made from several blocks of marble.
Shelley's estimate of this work was that " nothing in antiquity could surpass it." As a group, it certainly stands unrivaled. Michelangelo was a master judge and he declared it to be " a marvel of art."
The more carefully and patiently we study it the more we appreciate its pre-eminence in the world of art.
At the outset, a superficial designation of the work would be, that we have here a father and his two sons, strangled by serpents, at the command of the enraged Apollo. Now, as we examine it more minutely, we discover intense physical agony, against which the father rebels with his whole soul and which is depicted on his noble face. In the posture of his body, in the swelling of his muscles, in the heaving of his chest, there is more than a mighty effort to free him-self from the crushing slimy folds; there is also the working of the deadly poison which is fast making its way to the heart, the citadel of the man's life. And, as he feels the battle going against him, an unutterable anguish fills his soul.
As for the boys, two emotions are portrayed in their attitude and expression : first, overwhelming despair, in which, with uplifted hands, they appeal for help to their father; and second, filial devotion, as, with infinite compassion, they witness his appalling sufferings. This is strikingly apparent in the face of the elder boy, whose eyes are fixed on his father's face with a passionate gaze; observe that his lips are partly open as if to utter some cry of love or tender sympathy. Yet all the time his own body is aflame with poison and quivering with pain, but he only indicates his agony by the uplifting of the left foot from which he strives in vain to thrust off the fold of the serpent.
The younger brother is in the last throes of anguish, his right hand is raised despairingly, his left clutches the serpent's head, his beautiful face already suggests death ; a heart-breaking, soul-wrenching shriek, and the eyes will close, the head will fall back and the battle will be over.
Laocoon's torture, dignifying pain - A father's love and mortal agony With an immortal patience blending!"
Suppose now, we leave this group, step out into the glad Italian sunshine, and take a look at one of the fairest spots in the Vatican Gardens. We leave the Palace by the door almost directly west of the Court of the Belvedere (marked " entrance " on the map), and enter the Court of the Archives, and standing at the point indicated by the apex of the angle made by the two red lines at which is the number 19, we look away from the Palace into the midst of the Gardens.