Italian Art 101 – Lacoon and His Sons, Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum is one of the must-see spots in Rome and one of the most popular museums in the world. And rightly so. Over 70,000 priceless works of art are on display and countless more are tucked away in its archives. But instead of heading straight for Raphael’s beautiful paintwork in the Stanze della Segnatura or Michelangelo’s breath-taking Sistine Chapel I suggest you take the long way round and start with the Greek and Roman sculptures. And one in particular – Laocoön and His Sons in the Octagonal Room.

Laocoon and his sons

Laocoön and His Sons

At first glance there is an energy to the statue as the father and his two sons writhe and twist in battle with two snakes. The agonized expression on the father’s face as he fights to save his children adds drama and pain to the piece. And the quality of the work is breath-taking as the sculptor depicts the muscles and sinews of each of the three figures as they struggle with the serpents.


The first time I saw this statue earlier this year it literally stopped me in my tracks! It is without doubt now one of my favourites so I did some digging into its history. And what a history I discovered! Not only is this statue linked to the founding of Rome. But also to renowned Latin writer Pliny the Elder who famously died trying to escape the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. And that’s not all. The statue’s story also intertwines with Michelangelo, the birth of the Vatican Museum, Renaissance painter Raphael, the Georgian engraver William Blake and even Emperor Napoleon of France! Quite a story, eh!

Details of the sea serpents

Details of the sea serpents

So where did this impressive work come from?

Laocoön’s history

The sculpture itself was unearthed in a vineyard on the Esquiline Hill near Roman Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea complex and the Colosseum in 1506. At the time little was known about it so a 31-year old Michelangelo, who was working for newly elected Pope Julius II, and his arch rival Giuliano da Sangallo were called in to take a look and give their opinion. The young maestro immediately recognized and admired the quality of the sculpture convincing Pope Julius II to buy it for the expanding Papal art collection. But this is not a Renaissance piece. It dates back 2000 years, possibly as far back as the first century BC.

Il Colloseo, Roma

Il Colosseo, Roma

Study of the sculpture on its rediscovery in 1506 quickly identified the subjects as Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus from Greek mythology. The story goes that during the Trojan War, Laocoön, a seer or priest in the city of Troy, warned his fellow Trojans against accepting the wooden horse left outside the city gates by the Greek Ulysses. The Greek gods Athena and Poseidon took their revenge by sending two huge sea-serpents to kill Laocoön and his sons in their deadly coils. But in the meantime, Trojan hero Aeneas, nephew to the King, had heeded Laocoön’s warning and escaped the burning city, fleeing to Italy. Once on the Italian peninsula Roman mythology takes over the story as Virgil’s Aeneid casts Aeneas as an ancestor to Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. So you see Laocoön, a Greek priest, actually helped to found one of the greatest cities in the world!

Flight of Aeneas from Troy

Flight of Aeneas from Troy

But how did this sculpture come to be in Rome?

There has been much debate over the date and origins of the statue. Many experts believe it to be a copy of a 2nd century BC Greek bronze and that it was commissioned by a wealthy Roman, or even a member of the Imperial family, somewhere between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD. Unbelievably the statue also appears to be the exact same one described with high praise by the leading Latin writer on art, Pliny the Elder, who lived in the 1st century AD. Pliny describes the statue as standing in the palace of Emperor Titus and attributes it to 3 Greek sculptors from Rhodes – Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros. He also considers it to be one of the finest examples of Greek baroque style.

Belvedere Courtyard of the Vatican Museum

Belvedere Courtyard of the Vatican Museum

Not only did Pliny and later Michelangelo recognise the quality of this piece, however, but Pope Julius II did too. Shortly after buying the sculpture in 1506 he moved swiftly to put it on public display in the Vatican’s Belvedere Courtyard prior to its current location in the Octagonal Courtyard where it stands alongside other ancient works. And with that one act Pope Julius II effectively founded the Vatican Museum, opening the Vatican State doors to the Papal art collection that today covers over 42,000m2 and welcomes millions of visitors each year.

Which brings us back to Michelangelo.

Michelango Portrait by Volterra

Michelango Portrait by Volterra

Michelangelo’s link to Laocoön

Born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, (but handily known forever by his first name thank goodness), Michelangelo had been invited to Rome by the newly elected Pope Julius II in 1505. His first commission was to build the Pope’s tomb which was to include 40 statues but Michelangelo also had the opportunity to study some of the Papal art collection, including the newly discovered Laocoön statue which he greatly admired.

Michelangelo's ddd, Lord of the Underworld in The Last Judgement

Michelangelo’s Minos, Judge of the Underworld in The Last Judgement

Its has long been argued that Michelangelo’s work was influenced greatly by the classical Laocoön piece including his two sculptures in the Louvre – the Heroic Slave and the Dying Slave – both of which are restrained and encircled by straps around their naked bodies. Art historians have also suggested that there are references to the Laocoön in the Sistine Chapel, especially in the depiction of Minos, the judge of the underworld in the Last Judgement, who has a snake provocatively wrapped round him.

Close up of Laocoön's son

Close up of Laocoön’s son

One historian in 2005 even controversially proposed that Michelangelo had faked the Laocoön himself in order to sell it to the Pope. And he did have form twice having faked sculptures that he sold on to unsuspecting patrons as antique. But the idea was largely dismissed as there are other ancient Greek depictions of Laocoön similar to the Vatican statue including the High Altar from the Greek city of Pergamon which is on display in Berlin. The High Altar predates the Vatican statue and as Michelangelo was never in Pergamon he couldn’t have seen it or used it as the model to fake the 2m tall Vatican model. It’s a nice twist though!

Detail of Laocoön's son

Detail of Laocoön’s son

How Laocoön influenced art

The Laocoön didn’t just influence Michelangelo however. Many artists have used the sculpture as inspiration over the years. Michelangelo’s contemporary Raphael, for example, used Laocoön’s pained face as inspiration for Homer in his 1509 Parnassus in the Raphael Rooms of The Vatican (although the expression was used to express blindness instead of pain).

Raphael's Homer (in blue)

Raphael’s Homer (in blue)

Skip forward nearly 300 years and we come to Napoleon Bonaporte’s association with the Laocoön although this is a slightly less positive episode. Napolean famously conquered Italy in 1799 and took a shine to a number of ancient artworks including the gilt-copper horses of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice and the Laocoön statue from the Vatican. He promptly had his plunder transported back to Paris where the Laocoön remained until it was finally returned in 1816.

Detail of Laocoön's twisted torso

Detail of Laocoön’s torso

And finally, we have William Blake the Georgian engraver of the Romantic Age. Blake had some interesting ideas on religion and free love and provocatively depicted the sculpture surrounded by a commentary which described the piece as a copy of a lost Israelite statue of Jehovah and his two sons, Satan and Adam. Clearly art influences itself down the years but just who was copying whom?

William Blake's etching of Jehovah and his two sons, Satan and Adam

William Blake’s etching of Jehovah and his two sons, Satan and Adam

Don’t miss Laocoön and his sons

Today Laocoön and his Sons is displayed in the Octagonal Courtyard of the Vatican in Rome. The statue continues to inspire awe as we can almost feel the pain of the priest as he struggles and strains against the serpents. I wonder, however, how many people know the history behind the agony depicted in every taught sinew and contracted muscle? Or that Laocoön’s death was linked to the establishment of the very city that surrounds the Vatican today? Or that, despite it being a Greek sculpture it influenced at least two of the great Italian artists of the Renaissance and led to the founding of the museum in which it still stands? Next time you’re in the Vatican Museum make sure you give Laocoön and his sons a visit.

Useful Information

Official Vatican Museum website –

Buy tickets online and jump the queue

Ticket Office – the Ticket Office is open daily from 9 am to 4 pm except on Sundays.

Address – Viale Vaticano, 00165 Roma

Phone – 06 6988 3332

Opening Hours – The Museum opens Monday to Saturday, 9am to 6pm (although exit from the rooms is normally 30 minutes before the museum closes)

The post Italian Art 101 – Lacoon and His Sons, Vatican Museum first appeared on DreamDiscoverItalia.

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5 Responses to Italian Art 101 – Lacoon and His Sons, Vatican Museum

  1. Fishink says:

    All this from a statue.. wow perhaps you want to be a historian next ? Top blog as always

    • lizbert1 says:

      It was fascinating digging into it all cos originally I’d been told that Michelangelo had studied the Laocoon before sculpting his Davide although I found out that that was just a myth!! And then the story just got bigger and bigger!! I love this sort of thing! Thanks hon!! xxx

  2. Reblogged this on Sassi Italy Tours and commented:
    A great discussion of one of the magical pieces of work we love sharing with our clients.

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