The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Laocoön

Edition of 1920. See also Laocoön and Laocoön and His Sons on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

LAOCOÖN. lä-ŏk′ō-ŏn, a priest of Apollo at Troy. As he was sacrificing a bull to Poseidon on the shore, two serpents swimming from the island of Tenedos advanced to the altar. The people fled, but Laocoon and his sons fell victims to the monsters. The sons were first attacked, and then the father. Winding themselves round him, the serpents raised their heads high above him, while in his agony he vainly endeavored to extricate himself from their folds. They then retired to the temple of Pallas Athene, where they took shelter under her shield. The people saw in this omen Laocoon's punishment for his impiety in piercing with his spear the wooden horse consecrated to Athene. The story has frequently furnished a subject to the poets, but it is chiefly interesting to us as having given occasion to a fine work of sculpture — the Laocoon group, now in the Vatican. It was discovered in 1506 on the site of the baths of Titus. Pope Julius II bought it and placed it in the Vatican. Its preservation was perfect, except that the right arm of Laocoon was wanting: this was restored by a pupil of Michelangelo. This group is of the dramatic Rhodian school, and by no means belongs to the best style of Greek sculpture. Yet it has been much treated of in literature, especially by Goethe, Heine, Lessing, Winckelmann and Herder. It represents three persons in agony, but in different attitudes of struggle or fear, according to their ages. Pliny declares it was made of one stone by the sculptors Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodorus, all natives of Rhodes, and the two latter probably sons of the former.

Lessing makes it probable that those three artists lived under the first emperors. It may be fairly doubted whether the statue mentioned by Pliny is the same as that we now have; acute observers have found that the group does not consist of one block, though the junctions are carefully concealed. To this it may be answered that they were not perhaps perceptible in the time of Pliny. Several copies have been made; one in bronze, from a model by Giacopo Tati or Sansovino, which was carried to France. Bacio Bandinelli made a copy which is in the Medici Gallery at Florence.