Is Laocoon A Michelangelo Fake?
It is one of the masterpieces of ancient Greek sculpture. But could the Laoco÷n really be a fake by Michelangelo? Jonathan Jones reports.
April 30, 2005 The Guardian
It's true that Michelangelo was a brilliant forger. And it's true that he was obsessed with snakes, with serpentine twisting limbs, with emotional extremes and, most of all, with being bound. His two sculptures in the Louvre, his greatest outside Italy, have been known for ever as the Heroic Slave and the Dying Slave. Both of them are tied up, pinioned, with straps around their naked bodies. Leather straps? The marble cannot tell us. But the sense of constraint is palpable as you look up at the outsized unfinished figures. It's clear why they got their nicknames: one struggles with his bonds, pushes forward, hunching, into the air; the other swoons erotically, as if not only accepting but embracing death. Where on earth did Michelangelo get such a startling idea?
He was inspired, it has seemed fairly clear for the past several centuries, by an ancient Greek masterpiece dug up in Rome in January 1506, which depicted Laocoon, the high priest of Troy, and his sons being devoured by snakes. Now, though, an art historian is claiming that the ancient masterpiece - which fascinated not just Michelangelo but Blake, who engraved it, and Napoleon, who seized it - is not what it seems. She says it was carved by Michelangelo himself. Can this be possible and, if so, what would it mean?
Michelangelo was in Rome at the time the Laocoon was found, working for Pope Julius II, who had commissioned the 30-year-old to sculpt his tomb to stand in the middle of St Peter's. Rome at this moment was excavating its ancient grandeur, figuratively and literally. Julius, the warrior pope who named himself after the greatest Roman of them all, was building new roads and palaces that could compete with the colossal remains that brooded over the city - the Colosseum, the Pantheon. As they competed with the classical past, they were also rediscovering it: you could dig anywhere in Rome and find a lost statue, perhaps one already famous through literature but unseen for 1,000 years.
When Michelangelo and his rival Sangallo were called to see the latest find from Nero's palace - believed at that time to be the Baths of Titus - they recognised it as just such a lost masterpiece. Here, Sangallo saw at once, was the sculpture the Roman writer Pliny the Elder calls the greatest work of art in the world: a gory representation of Laocoon and his sons and the "wonderful clasping coils" of the snakes that came out of the sea and killed them. The story is in Virgil's Aeneid; the sculpture, according to Pliny, was in the palace of Titus in Rome. Lo and behold, that was where it was found.
As soon as Sangallo identified it, Pope Julius bought the Laocoon and installed it in his Belvedere palace in the Vatican; in subsequent centuries travellers to Rome revered it as the most sublime and tragic masterpiece of ancient art. For the 18th-century art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, nothing captured the lost grandeur of the Greeks so purely as Laocoon's suffering. It was art that got inside you: "The pain discovers itself in every muscle and sinew of the body, and the beholder, while looking at the agonised contraction of the abdomen, without viewing the face and other parts, believes that he almost feels the pain himself."
Pliny credits Laocoon to three Greek sculptors, Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros, all from Rhodes. Their names still appear attached to the sculpture in every history of western art. Yet now, this supreme survival of the ancient world has, purportedly, been exposed as the work of that talented pasticheur, Michelangelo. It sounds, at first, utterly deranged. Yet Lynn Catterson told the Italian Academy at Columbia University she has a "mountain of evidence" proving Michelangelo faked the ancient sculpture and arranged for it to be discovered so he could profit from its sale.
Let's run with the theory for a while. After all, Michelangelo had form. His very first experiment in sculpture as a boy in Florence was a perfect imitation of an ancient head of a faun. He later used his talent for mimicry to establish his reputation in Rome: he deliberately treated a little Cupid so that it looked as if it had been in the ground for centuries and sold this worn "antique" to a Roman collector. When its true creator was exposed, the affair enhanced Michelangelo's reputation - his victim, Cardinal Riario, became his patron.
It might strain belief that Michelangelo felt the need to do the same thing again a decade later, when he was employed by a Pope, even one who didn't pay him regularly. And a Cupid is a small thing; the Laocoon is huge. How did he conceal it?
Taken as a counterfactual proposition, it makes you think - about the nature of influence, about classical revivals, about what the Renaissance was. For centuries, European art was based on the concept of imitation. Nothing was ever new under the sun, it was believed. Artists could discover their own style only by learning from the Old Masters - and ultimately from the classical world. Receiving these ideas at 10th hand, we talk lazily about the "influence" that ancient art had on the Renaissance. However, when you look closer, the Renaissance had a far more creative relationship to the past - and there is no better example than Michelangelo's intimacy with the Laocoon. He entwines it as much as it entwining him.
The "Slaves" in the Louvre can be seen, simply enough, as his response to the discovery of the Laocoon in 1506. He was planning Julius's tomb and designed these bound prisoners to stand around it; he never finished the tomb, but returned again and again to the disturbing poetry of his captives, carving a later batch, still more haunting, that were displayed for centuries in a grotto in the Boboli Gardens before being moved to Florence's Accademia in the 20th century. Modernist they look to us but they share the pathos of the Laocoon.
There are quotations of the Laocoon, too, in the Sistine Chapel - the most outrageous being Minos, judge of the underworld, in the Last Judgment, to whom he gave the features of a Vatican functionary who criticised his fresco. In Dante's Inferno, the awful Minos wraps his snaky tail around himself to count the circle of hell to which a soul is damned. Michelangelo has the snake coil around his flesh, like the snakes that make Laocoon howl. But this crushing is pleasurable: the snake's diamond head fellates Minos.
The fun starts when you see Laocoons in Michelangelo's paintings and sculptures from before its discovery in 1506. In about 1494, when he was still a teenager, he carved The Battle of the Centaurs - a writhing, coiling tangle of limbs. The men and centaurs struggling in buttery marble have the sensuous abandon of a nest of snakes, and you can even see a figure who specifically resembles Laocoon.
You can almost start to believe Michelangelo did forge the Laocoon, if it weren't for one depressing fact. In the Pergamon Museum in Berlin is the immense High Altar from the Greek city of Pergamon in Asia Minor. On its frieze is a passionate suffering figure with a wild face - obviously the model for the face of Laocoon. This kind of expressive, pathetic emotionalism became typical of later Greek art, in the Hellenistic style. Before the Pergamon altar was taken to Berlin by German archaeologists it was in Turkey. Michelangelo never went there. He cannot have forged the 400ft-long Pergamon frieze, or based the Laocoon on it. Amazingly enough, the Renaissance really did rediscover the masterpiece described by Pliny.
And there's another reason why the Laocoon can't be by Michelangelo. It's not good enough. Even in his teenaged Battle of the Centaurs, he had an intensity unlike any other sculptor who ever lived. Even for a joke, one he supposedly kept silent about for the remaining 60 years of a life during which two of his followers published biographies with his involvement, Michelangelo would have made this sculpture more personal, more his own. He couldn't help it. So what we have is an ancient sculpture that, somehow, Michel- angelo already had in mind when he first saw it in 1506. Influence is like that: you dig up what you desire.