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Laocoön and His Sons: The revealing detail in an ancient find
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Although Laocoön's facial expression has been criticised for inaccuracy, it could in fact allow the sculpture to reveal conflicting emotions simultaneously (Credit: Alamy)
An apparent mistake in facial expression in one of the world's most famous sculptures actually allows the artwork to truly convey anguish, writes Kelly Grovier.
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It is easy to miss amid the frozen frenzy of slithering scales and snapping fangs that ensnare the Trojan priest and his twin sons as the trio wrestle with a pair of giant snakes in one of the most famous sculptures in all of art history: Laocoön and His Sons – among the greatest treasures of the Vatican Museum's vast collection of antiquities. But if you look closely at the forehead of the tortured protagonist, who, according to Virgil in the epic poem The Aeneid, is punished by the gods for having warned his fellow Trojans not to trust the wooden horse given to them by the Greeks, you'll see it: a disparity in facial expression between the emotions conveyed by the upward surge of Laocoön's anguished eyebrows and the more serene and cerebral ripples of his brow, which stretch unbroken from side to side.

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This delicate discrepancy in the chiselled tissue of the ancient statue has troubled the gaze of observers of the work at least since Charles Darwin damned the detail as a "great anatomical mistake" in 1872. Darwin, citing the opinion of an eccentric French neurologist by the name of Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne (who used electrodes on subjects in an effort to reproduce the sculpture's expression), complained that this particular combination of forehead flexing was physiognomically impossible and therefore a defect that distracted from the sculpture's power. Was Darwin right? Or is this dissonance in the music of sculpted muscle the very epicentre of the sculpture's unending allure – the defining flourish that rescues the work from stultifying stasis and makes Laocoön and His Sons the enduring masterpiece that it is?

Laocoön and His Sons shows a Trojan priest being attacked by snakes (Credit: Alamy)

Laocoön and His Sons shows a Trojan priest being attacked by snakes (Credit: Alamy)

Everything about the sculpture is both larger than life and hard to pin down. Thought to have once adorned the palace of the First Century AD Roman emperor Titus, the sculpture slipped from the view of history for centuries. Its appearance was only barely surmisable from the lavish praise that the Roman writer Pliny the Elder had heaped upon it in his compendium of knowledge, Natural History. Lauding it as "a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of [bronze] statuary", Pliny testifies that the sculpture was "sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the serpents with their marvellous folds" and that it was the work of three legendary Rhodesian sculptors Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus. What isn't clear from Pliny's remarks and still remains a matter of some speculation to this day is whether the sculpture he saw was an original creation or a copy, as some believe, of a long-lost masterwork.

Sculpted with care

What we do know is that Pliny's effusive esteem for the sculpture was still echoing in the minds of those who accidentally stumbled across it buried in a vineyard in February 1506. Upon receiving news that a clutch of classical sculptures had been found, Pope Julius II dispatched a team of experts to oversee their excavation. In attendance for the careful disinterment was a young sculptor by the name of Michelangelo, who had recently completed a daring and much ballyhooed statue of David in Florence, as well as Lorenzo di Medici's favourite architect, Giuliano da Sangallo. Also present was Giuliano's 11-year-old son, Francesco, who would go on to become a sculptor of some note in his own right.

Recalling the legendary dig decades later, Francesco, then in his 70s, remembers being at the heart of the action. "I climbed down to where the statues were", Francesco memorialised in a letter, "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…"

That the sculpture left an indelible impression, too, on the imagination of Michelangelo is evident from the Renaissance master's subsequent sculptures. It is impossible to look at the posturing of Michelangelo's the Dying Slave, for example, created seven years after he witnessed the recovery of Laocoön and His Sons, without marking the parallels in pose and sublimated emotion. More immediately, parallels between the muscular mannerisms of the ancient sculpture and aspects of the frescoes that Michelangelo was to design on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel just two years after Laocoön was excavated have been suggested.

Art historian Richard Fly wrote that Michelangelo's The Dying Slave "suggests that moment when life capitulates before the relentless force of dead matter" (Credit: Alamy)

Art historian Richard Fly wrote that Michelangelo's The Dying Slave "suggests that moment when life capitulates before the relentless force of dead matter" (Credit: Alamy)

Not everyone, however, has been as impressed or approving of the salvaged sculpture. In the centuries since its rediscovery, Laocoön and His Sons has been the focus of intense scrutiny. The Romantic poet and artist William Blake was more than a little irked by the work. With characteristic irreverence, Blake quirkily concluded that it was an inept forgery of a lost Hebraic masterpiece that once adorned the Temple of Solomon and depicted Jehovah and his sons, Adam and Satan. Convinced that such classical throwbacks were corrupting of creative consciousness, Blake defaced a print of the sculpture by surrounding it with a blizzard of irascible aphorisms that he believed contradicted the sculpture's muddled message, such as "Where any view of money exists, art cannot be carried on, but war only". Beside the head of the vicious snake that is about to bite Laocoön and finish him off, Blake scribbled a single word: "Good".

Nor was Pliny and Michelangelo's admiration shared by the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, who believed the work was entirely out of sync and sympathy with the rhythms of the real world. He especially hated the snakes. "The fixing of the snake's head in the side of the principal figure," he argued, "is as false to nature, as it is poor in composition of line." Ruskin breathlessly goes on to say in the third volume of his Modern Painters in 1856, "A large serpent never wants to bite, it wants to hold, it seizes therefore always where it can hold best, by the extremities, or throat, it seizes once and forever, and that before it coils, following up the seizure with the twist of its body round the victim, as invisibly swift as the twist of a whip lash round any hard object it may strike, and then it holds fast, never moving the jaws or the body, if its prey has any power of struggling left, it throws round another coil, without quitting the hold with the jaws; if Laocoön had had to do with real serpents, instead of pieces of tape with heads to them, he would have been held still, and not allowed to throw his arms or legs about."

If accurately depicted, Laocoön's pain would be ugly – a display from which any observer would recoil in disgust

Even those who have acknowledged the ancient sculpture's achievement have wrestled with what emotion, precisely, it depicts. The 18th-Century archaeologist and historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, for example, saw the work as the apotheosis of stoic heroism and admired its ability to project a semblance of eternal beauty in the face of intense anguish. His contemporary, the polymath Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, argued that the sculpture demonstrates the very different challenges faced by a visual artist from those that confront a poet. Lessing insisted that while a writer such as Virgil, from whose epic verse the work stems, could describe in great detail the torment experienced by Laocoön and his sons, a sculptor responsible depicting the same scene has little choice but to manipulate emotion in order to elicit our pity. If accurately depicted, Laocoön's pain would be ugly – a display from which any observer would recoil in disgust. "The demands of beauty," Lessing insists, "could not be reconciled with the pain in all its disfiguring violence… the distress should be transformed, through beauty, into the tender feeling of pity."

Although Laocoön's facial expression has been criticised for inaccuracy, it could in fact allow the sculpture to reveal conflicting emotions simultaneously (Credit: Alamy)

Although Laocoön's facial expression has been criticised for inaccuracy, it could in fact allow the sculpture to reveal conflicting emotions simultaneously (Credit: Alamy)

To the 19th-Century French neurologist Duchenne, famous for his use of électropuncture to explore the relationship between one's mental state and the movement of his or her muscles, such wilful misrepresentation of human anatomy as sanctioned by Lessing could only result in a diminishment of the work. Troubled by his predecessors' willingness to accept the discrepancy between the "extreme suffering" expressed by Laocoön's eyebrows and the contradictory "serenity of mind" conveyed by the rest of his forehead, Duchenne set about to establish whether such a brawling brow of clashing feeling was even physically possible.

After experiments involving the use of electric shocks, Duchenne was convinced that this particular confluence of conflicting emotion, in which the eyebrows arch in accordance with what he calls "the muscle of pain" while the forehead is furrowed in unbroken ripples from side to side in line with the more cerebral "muscle of attention", was "physiologically impossible". This violation of "the immutable laws of nature", Duchenne concluded, "mars the work".

The contradiction between uncontrollable torment and composed calm that Laocoön's forehead impossibly suspends might not be a mistake at all

Darwin agreed with Duchenne's damning assessment. But he also believed that the ancient artist (or artists) responsible for the work were "wonderfully accurate observers" who must have "intentionally sacrificed truth for the sake of beauty". There is, however, another possibility: that the contradiction between the reflexes of the body and those of the mind – between uncontrollable torment and composed calm – that Laocoön's forehead impossibly suspends, is not a mistake at all, but part of a deliberate duality of storytelling intended by the sculptor to transform the work from stasis into agitation – a duplexity of aesthetic design without which the sculpture's power would be greatly diminished.

After all, the text on which the sculpture is based, Book II of Virgil's Aeneid, is itself preoccupied with themes of coupling and doubleness. It is not enough, for instance, that the Trojan priest Laocoön, who has expressed his suspicion that the Greek's gift of a wooden horse may be an act of duplicity, is tortured by the gods for ingratitude. So too are his twin sons. Nor is it sufficient that Laocoön is set upon by a single giant snake. Two are unleashed: "a pair (I shudder as I tell)", Virgil says, "of vastly coiling serpents, side by side". This reinforced sense of pairing, coupling and duality is only amplified as Virgil proceeds: "twice round the waist; and twice in scaly grasp / around his neck".

It is the result is a portrayal caught ceaselessly in flux between physical and psychological throes, like a marble hologram, a liquid stone

According to Virgil, the tortuous squeeze of the "dragon-pair" elicit from Laocoön a corresponding dualism in the form of an oscillating responses, as he shuttles back and forth from hopeless focus to indescribable anguish: now attempting to pry the snakes loose ("he… tore at his fetters with a desperate hand"), now howling in torment (with an "agonising voice"), now slashing at the encircling scales with his sword ("the ill-aimed, glancing blade"). That sequence of vacillating actions and feelings, however quick and collapsed, is crucial to a reader's perception of Laocoön's plight. Unlike their literary counterpart and source, however, a sculptor does not have at his or her disposal successive lines to develop an unfolding narrative and must instead splice the action and emotions down to a single, isolated millisecond – to decide on which single emotion to depict.

In the case of Laocoön's final struggle, prioritising one emotion over another and therefore privileging the flex of the "the muscle of pain" over that of "the muscle of attention", or vice versa, would be to disfigure the story and suspend the seer forever in a falsely uncontextualised instant of either fierce concentration or unutterable suffering. By electing to merge the two reactions, the creator of Laocoön forges from marble a remarkably elastic work. The result is a portrayal caught ceaselessly in flux between physical and psychological throes, like a marble hologram, a liquid stone. Like the seer it commemorates, Laocoön is remarkably proleptic. Millennia before its time, the sculpture foretells the modernist ambition of Cubist artists to capture contradictory emotions in a single compound countenance. Like Picasso's greatest portraits, Laocoön and His Sons sacrifices superficial accuracy for deeper beauties and deeper truths.

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