Nothing extraneous. Everything working. With muscles tense, movement over every inch of the surface, the figures themselves create the space in which they exist, taking the place of time. Timeless.
The Priest Laocoön was a seer in the Temple of Apollo. He had two sons, Antiphas and Thymbraeus. One story has him ostracized from the temple for breaking his vow of celibacy. Another describes his ill-fated warning to the assembled people of Troy against accepting a suspicious gift from the army of Greece: the Trojan horse. In either case, it is an ancient Greek sculpture that brings this story to life.
“… Of our men
One group stood marveling, gaping to see
The dire gift of the cold unbedded goddess,
The sheer mass of the horse.”
“Build up a bonfire under it,
This trick of the Greeks, a gift no one can trust,
Or cut it open, search the hollow belly!”
“Contrary notions pulled the crowd apart.
Next thing we knew, in front of everyone,
Laocoön with a great company
Came furiously running from the Height,
And still far off cried out: ‘O my poor people,
Men of Troy, what madness has come over you?
Can you believe the enemy truly gone?’”[i]
Writing in the Aeneid the poet Virgil related the story of Laocoön’s warning to his fellow citizens, the subsequent sack of Troy, and that infamous horse. Laocoön, sensing the horse to be hollow, struck it with his spear, echoing both inside and out. So either Apollo, or Minerva, sent serpents in retaliation for Laocoön’s warnings and his defiance of the gods. The research, dating, and other historical facts surrounding the telling of this story and the creation of the sculpture are, however, confusing.
Pliny the Elder attributed the commission of this sculpture to a team of three artists from Rhodes: Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus. They worked together seamlessly, interlacing the figures and serpents into a dynamic whole. It was thought to have been completed between 200 BC and 100 AD but those dates continue to be debated.
The original work was buried and lost after being in the Palace of Titus around 79-81 AD. It was later rediscovered during an excavation in early 1506 and brought immediately to Pope Julius II who had it placed in the Vatican Collection. His Holiness requested Michelangelo, who was working in Rome at the time, to inspect this newly discovered example of classical sculpture. Upon seeing “The Laocoön” Michelangelo declared it to be the most beautiful example he had seen from ancient times.
At first “The Laocoön” was attributed to the Romans as a copy from a lost original. Later it was theorized that it was not Roman, but truly a classical Greek composition. This debate continued without much clarification until the historian Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote an explication of this sculpture in his “Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry” in 1766. Lessing describes this sculpture and looks deeply into it, while simultaneously analyzing Virgil’s poem.
These art historical speculations pose a problem for the student of ekphrastics: if it had been created earlier, then Virgil may have actually seen it and been inspired to write his account in the Aeneid. However, if it had really been a Roman composition, then it was much later than Virgil, and possibly an illustration of his telling of this story.
In any event, Lessing’s descriptions and speculations are in themselves important examples of the ekphrastic tradition. His observations search the surfaces of this piece of marble and look deeply into its meaning. Describing a facial feature in one example, and then writing regarding the anguish coming from behind the mask, Lessing gives us a meditation on the expressive possibilities in a work of art.
“Virgil’s Laocoön cries out, but this screaming Laocoön is the same man whom we already know and love as a prudent patriot and loving father. We do not relate his cries to his character, but solely to his unbearable suffering. It is this alone which we hear in them, and it was only by this means that the poet could convey it clearly to our senses.”[ii]
Lessing’s observations address the processes of both seeing and writing. In his essay he searches for significant details that are employed for creative expression and he, himself, debates the use of these details in order to tell the entire story. Which elements will work for the poet? Which ones for the artists?
“It is claimed that representation in the arts covers all of visible nature, of which the beautiful is but a small part. Truth and expression are art’s first law, and as nature herself is ever ready to sacrifice beauty for the sake of higher aims, so must the artist subordinate it to his general purpose and pursue it no further than truth and expression permit. It is enough that truth and expression transform the ugliest aspects of nature into artistic beauty.”[iii]
“The idea of having the father and his two sons connected in one entanglement by means of the deadly serpents is undeniably an inspired one and gives evidence of a highly artistic imagination. Whose was it, the poet’s or the artists’?”[iv]
“But only that which gives free rein to the imagination is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imaginations, the more we must think we see.”[v]
Early in the summer of 2017, during a visit to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Cité de Paris, I came upon the following statement on one of the information tags in an exhibition and copied it down in my notebook:
“Tout l’art du passe, de toutes les époques, de tout les civilisations surgit devant moi, tout est simultané comme si l’espace prenait la place du temps.”
—Alberto Giacometti, 1965[vi]
This led me back to a book of “Interpretive Drawings” by Alberto Giacometti that included two of his drawings from “The Laocoön.” In English his statement reads: “In all art of the past, of all eras, and all civilizations that came before me, all share a common vision in which space takes the place of time.”[vii]
Not only did Alberto Giacometti go to this source in reference to the old masters, so did James Joyce when Stephen Dedalus comments on this very story in Ulysses: “Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope.”[viii]
And this is how Virgil described Laocoön’s confrontation with this beast:
Is in this thing. Have no faith in the horse!
Whatever it is, even when Greeks bring gifts
I fear them, gifts and all.”
“He broke off then
And rifled his big spear with all his might
Against the horse’s flank, the curve of the belly.
It stuck there trembling, and the rounded hull
Reverberated groaning at the blow.”[ix]
“…. But straight ahead
They slid until they reached Laocoön.
Twining about and feeding on the body.
Next they ensnared the man as he ran up
With weapons: coils like cables looped and bound him
Twice round the middle; twice about his throat
They wipped their back-scales, and their heads towered,
While with both hands he fought to break the knots,
Drenched in slime, his head-hands black with venom,
Sending to heaven his appalling cries
Like a slashed bull escaping from an altar,
The fumbled axe shrugged off. The pair of snakes
Now flowed away and made for the highest shrines,
The citadel of pitiless Minerva,
Where coiling they took cover at her feet
Under the rondure of her shield. New terrors
Ran in the shaken crowd: the word went round
Laocoön had paid, and rightfully,
For profanation of the sacred hulk
With his offending spear hurled at its flank.”[x]
[i] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); Vintage Classics and Random House; New York, New York; 1990; BOOK II, Lines 42-45 & 52-61, p. 34.
[ii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; The Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore and London; 1984; p. 24.
[iii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 19.
[iv] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 35.
[v] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 19.
[vi] Carluccio, Luigi; Giacometti: A Sketchbook of Interpretive Drawings; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1967. Giacometti’s statement regarding these drawings led me to revisit this book of his drawings copied from many historic works of art.
[vii] From an e-mail correspondence between this writer and Dr. Rosalie Vermette, Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, Paris, France, and Professor Emerita, School of Liberal Arts, Indiana University and Purdue University at Indianapolis, 22 May 2018.
[viii] Joyce, James; Ulysses; Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1934 & 1997; p. 301.
[ix] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); BOOK II, Lines 67-75, p. 35.
[x] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); BOOK II, Lines 290-310, p. 41.