In January 1506, a wealthy Roman named Felice De Fredis was developing his vineyard on the Esquiline Hill, in between the Colosseum and the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. He had bought the vineyard near the Church of St. Peter in Chains in November 1504. He was going to build a house on the property and was pushing a stick/rod through the soil of his land to try and find the bedrock so he could lay foundations for the house. He found a patch of land with no resistance at all; a hole. He had his workers dig up the soil of the area and found out his land was sitting over an ancient Roman vault. Lowering himself in to the vault twelve feet deep, he found five of the seven rooms empty but in the sixth there was an ancient snake statue. Just as if you found an artefact on your land today, De Fredis informed the government. He called to the City Prefect of Rome who in turn informed the head of the Papal States, which Rome was part of, the Pope. De Fredis had unwittingly discovered a section of the Palace of the Roman Emperor Titus, which backed on to the bathhouse Titus had commissioned fourteen hundred years previously.


renaissance michelangelo

The Pope, Julius II, was a noted patron of the arts and already owned the Apollo Belvedere statue. He sent word to Giuliano da Sangallo, who was one of the best architects of his day and was also classically educated - he had read ancient Roman and Greek sources on architecture, sculpture and history. He told Sangallo to get Michelangelo Buonarotti to go with him. During the renaissance Michelangelo, more famous for his later paint work, was considered the best sculptor of his day and was already working on Pope Julius II's tomb. As it happened Michelangelo was in Sangallo's house that day anyway, as the pair were friends; Sangallo was one of the few people who got on with Michelangelo and whom he respected.

greece sculpture

Michelangelo, Giuliano da Sangallo and Sangallo's son Francesco went off to the site. Francesco went down in to the hole to inspect the find. His father Giuliano standing over and looking in to the hole was immediately able to identify it as the Laocoon group of Greek mythology described by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder. Once it was pulled out of the ground Michelangelo was amazed by the quality of work. He had no idea what it was but was; but with the expression of anguish in the face, the veins and muscle definition in a piece of rock, he said it would be a “portent of art”.

The source for this is Francesco da Sangallo’s letter some years later in 1567: The first time I was in Rome when I was very young, the pope was told about the discovery of some very beautiful statues in a vineyard near S. Maria Maggiore. The pope ordered one of his officers to run and tell Giuliano da Sangallo to go and see them. He set off immediately. Since Michelangelo Buonarroti was always to be found at our house, my father having summoned him and having assigned him the commission of the pope's tomb, my father wanted him to come along, too. I joined up with my father and off we went. I climbed down to where the statues were when immediately my father said, "That is the Laocoön, which Pliny mentions." Then they dug the hole wider so that they could pull the statue out. As soon as it was visible everyone started to draw, all the while discoursing on ancient things, chatting as well about the ones in Florence.

laocoon greek mythology

Laocoon was a priest of Apollo during the Trojan War, which happened circa 1200 BC, over 3200 years ago. The original legendary description of the Trojan War comes to us from Homer in his Iliad and Odyssey. The character of Laocoon is first mentioned by the Roman Historian Publius Vergillius Margo, anglicised to Virgil, in his Aeneid - a book about the history and origins of Rome. Ancient Roman legends considered themselves to be descendants of the Trojans; Aeneas fleeing the burning Troy founds a colony in Italy from whom the Romans descended. The Aeneid, written in the life time of Augustus and Christ, is a classic of Western Civilisation and was read widely by educated circles in the middle ages such as Giulio da Sangallo. In Book 2, section 40 Virgil tells us:

Then from the citadel, conspicuous,
Laocoon, with all his following choir,
hurried indignant down; and from afar
thus hailed the people: “O unhappy men!
What madness this? Who deems our foemen fled?
Think ye the gifts of Greece can lack for guile?
Have ye not known Ulysses? The Achaean
hides, caged in yonder beams; or this is reared
for engin'ry on our proud battlements,
to spy upon our roof-tops, or descend
in ruin on the city. 'T is a snare.
Trust not this horse, O Troy, whate'er it bode!
I fear the Greeks, though gift on gift they bear.”
So saying, he whirled with ponderous javelin
a sturdy stroke straight at the rounded side
of the great, jointed beast.
Virgil Aenid Book 2 Lines 40-50 Theodore C. Williams Translation Houghton Mifflin Copyright 1910

laocoon group

So Laocoon, was a Trojan Priest of Apollo assigned to be a priest of Neptune, God of the Sea, that year. After Helen of Sparta absconds with Paris to Troy, her scorned husband Menelaus plots revenge and enlists Agamemnon forming a coalition of Greek city states to invade Troy and revenge the insult. For years some Greek kings wanted to take the wealthy city of Troy, a city on the north western coast of Turkey, and the absconsion or kidnapping of Helen of Sparta (later Helen of Troy) was the casus belli. The Greek invasion force to Troy was unsuccessful at storming its high thick walls. So the Greeks came up with the idea of a wooden horse, later the Trojan Horse. If they left a large wooden horse on the beach as an offering to Athena, goddess of war, she would grant them a safe voyage home. The Greeks would then leave the beach and hide their navy at the island of Tenedos some miles away, returning at late morning the next day. When the Trojans came to the beach to find out why they were no longer being attacked, they would see the offering to the Gods and would want to bring in it to their city to show their citizens that the Greeks had given up trying to take their city. Meanwhile an elite shock troop of Greeks would wait inside the wooden horse and when the Trojans had passed out from partying the peace, they would escape the horse, open the gates and allow the rest of the returned Greek soldiers inside. That was the plan and according to Virgil and it worked.

When the Trojans came to the beach to find out why the Greek navy was gone, they saw the massive horse and were discussing bringing it inside the city. Laocoon said that is a bad idea “I fear Greeks even when they bring gifts” and he threw his spear in to the horse as a sign of distrust. Athena, known to the Romans as Minerva was the patron goddess of Athens and was on the side of the Greek invasion force which Athens was part of. She wanted to punish Laocoon for attempting to foil the Greek plot. Later as he was praying with his two sons, she sent sea serpents to kill him. The moment he turned around from praying at the altar the snakes attacked him and his two sons. That is what the statue is showing. You can see the altar he is sitting on. So this is a tale of divine retribution.

The passage from the Aeneid:
That, if you violate with hands profane
Minerva’s gift, your town in flames shall burn,
…Laocoon, Neptune’s priest by lot that year,
With solemn pomp then sacrific’d a steer;
When, dreadful to behold, from sea we spied
Two serpents, rank’d abreast, the seas divide,
And smoothly sweep along the swelling tide.
Their flaming crests above the waves they show;
Their bellies seem to burn the seas below;
Their speckled tails advance to steer their course,
And on the sounding shore the flying billows force.

And to Laocoon and his children make;
And first around the tender boys they wind,
Then with their sharpen’d fangs their limbs and bodies grind
The wretched father, running to their aid
With pious haste, but vain, they next invade;
Twice round his waist their winding volumes roll’d;
And twice about his gasping throat they fold.
The priest thus doubly chok’d, their crests divide,
And tow’ring o’er his head in triumph ride.
With both his hands he labors at the knots;
His holy fillets the blue venom blots;
His roaring fills the flitting air around.
Thus, when an ox receives a glancing wound,
He breaks his bands, the fatal altar flies,
And with loud bellowings breaks the yielding skies.
Their tasks perform’d, the serpents quit their prey,
And to the tow’r of Pallas make their way:
Couch’d at her feet, they lie protected there
By her large buckler and protended spear.
Amazement seizes all; the gen’ral cry
Proclaims Laocoon justly doom’d to die,
Whose hand the will of Pallas had withstood,
And dared to violate the sacred wood.
Virgil Aenid Book 2 Lines 250-300 Theodore C. Williams Translation Houghton Mifflin Copyright 1910


Educated ancients Romans such as Emperors, senators and governors would have read Homer and Virgil and would recognise the scene. This is why the Roman Emperor Titus owned the Statue; he most likely inherited it from previous emperors Nero or Tiberius; Tiberius had another work by these sculptors at Sperlonga near Rome and Nero’s Domus Aurea had been nearby and replete with Greek masterpieces.

The Roman writer and Governor Pliny the Elder, who lived almost two thousand years ago (23 – 79 AD), was personal friends of the Roman Emperor Titus (79-81 AD). Titus, the second Emperor of the Flavian line, was the man who commissioned the Arch in the Roman Forum, finished the fourth storey of the Colosseum and opened it officially to the public. Pliny was quite taken with the Laocoon statue and wrote about it after a visit to the Emperor’s house:

Such is the case with the Laocoön, for example, in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of statuary. It is sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the serpents with their marvellous folds. This group was made in concert by three most eminent artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, natives of Rhodes. In similar manner also, the palaces of the Cæsars, in the Palatium, have been filled with most splendid statuary, the work of Craterus, in conjunction with Pythodorus, of Polydeuces with Hermoläus, and of another Pythodorus with Artemon; some of the statues, also, are by Aphrodisius of Tralles, who worked alone.

vatican sculptures

Giuliano da Sangallo had read Pliny’s work and the Aeneid which it was based on. When the Statue was pulled from the ground, Giuliano da Sangallo knew the Pope would want this and it would be the envy of every educated monarch in Europe. Taking a closer look they noticed it was not made of one piece of marble as Pliny had said.

Pope Julius II offered Felice de Fredis a pension taken from the toll receipts of the Porta San Giovanni; the tax paid at the gate of St. John the Lateran to enter Rome. De Fredis accepted which paid off; he died in 1529, twenty three years after the statue was discovered and he was buried in the Church of Santa Maria d’ Ara Coeli atop the Capitoline Hill. The contact signed in March 1506, two months after the discovery, the Laocoon arrived in the Vatican in August of that year after a public procession in Rome. It became the focus and most important of the Vatican sculptures, which it is today, many people buy a ticket to the Vatican Museums just to see it.

laocoon and his sons

The statue itself was most likely sculpted by Agesander, Anthenodorous and Polydorous, three Greek master sculptors from the island of Rhodes. There is no inscription on the statue to identify the creators so Pliny’s work is accepted by almost all historians. We have an inscription on another statue, identifying these three men, from the Emperor Tiberius Villa (14-37 AD) at Sperlonga near Rome - so the statue likely dates 20 BC to 40 AD. It may have been a marble copy of a bronze original from the Greek kingdom of Pergamum, as it is in Pergamene style, circa 140 BC - two hundred years previously. Regardless, if this is the case that bronze is lost to us, probably melted down for weapons in a time of war, so this Vatican Laocoon is now the original.

Made out of more than one piece of pentellic marble, it is a masterpiece for any age. You can see definition in the muscles, veins in the legs and expressions of terror and impending death on the faces of the Laocoon family are remarkable. It would have taken two to four years to make and was done with a rudimentary hammer and chisel two thousand years ago. It inspired Michelangelo and other artists throughout the years.

lacoon statue

The only issue with Laocoon and His Sons was that Laocoon himself and the younger son were both missing their right arms. While for the younger son this is not a big issue, with the central figure you can see a large crack running through the right shoulder. It could not be found anywhere in the vicinity of the sette selle, or seven rooms on the Esquilline, where the statue had been unearthed.

Circa 1510 Bramante, the first architect of the current St. Peter’s Basilica, held a contest to see who could design an intact copy of the Laocoon with the right arm in whichever position the artist favoured. The entrants would make a wax model of the statue with a full arm, the winner of which would be cast in to a bronze copy. Bramante appointed his friend and paisan Raphael Santi to judge the contest. Raphael was already engaged in painting Pope Julius II’s apartments, now known as the Raphael Rooms and was also the inspector for the Antiquities of Rome; he had to draw, record and sell the ancient Roman ruins of Rome to raise funds for the building of St. Peter’s. There were many entrants to the contest including Michelangelo and Jacopo Sansovino, who later became one of the leading architects of Venice. Michelangelo, looking at the tensing of the muscles, made a model where the missing arm was bent back towards the head. Sansovino made a model where the arm was sticking up in the air away from the head. Raphael did not like Michelangelo personally and was a rival for work; Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the time (1508 to 1512). Raphael awarded first prize to Sansovino and his bronze model was made which is now lost to us. Michelangelo continued to maintain the original was bent back towards the head.

the Laocoon group

In 1532 Pope Clement VII (1523-1534), of the Medici family, asked Giovanni Montorsorli to make an arm for the Laocoon. Montorsorli, previously an assistant of Michelangelo, ignored his master’s advice and made an arm sticking up in the air, holding the snake, pointing away from the head. His fake arm was attached to the Laocoon for over 400 years (it was removed when the statue was brought to Paris by Napoleon 1798, and put back on once it returned to the Vatican in 1816). Many copies were made of the statue with the arm upright and distributed around the world.

the Laocoon group

In 1903 some building work was done on the original site of the Laocoon’s discovery. The property was now owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, a Catholic religious organisation. This would have required some digging and removing of rubble from the vicinity. Two years later archaeologist Ludwig Pollak, a German, was in a stonecutters shop on Via Labicana near the Colosseum and not too far away from the sette selle. He saw a bent white pentellic marble arm and believe it could be the lost arm of the Laocoon, or a copy. This stone cutter more than likely bought the stone rubble from the Sister of St. Joseph two years previously and the arm was amongst the haul. How it was separated from the Laocoon in the first place, be it damaged in an earthquake or a victim of vandalism, is not recorded. Pollak bought it and donated it to the Vatican, who kept it in storage.

In 1957 Fillippo Magi, a Vatican restorationist, attempting to add the Pollak arm to the Laocoon, found the arm was a precise fit. The arm was in the exact position Michelangelo had suggested over four hundred years ago, proving, even in death, he was always right.

Further Reading