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Laocoon and the Snakes

 

There is perhaps no more iconic scene from Vergil’s Aeneid, than that of Laocoon’s struggle against the serpents of Tenedos in Book II. The tragic scene is beautifully rendered by Vergil in his skillfully wrought poetic form. His playful use of word and sound arrangement draws the reader in to writhe with the victims and the serpents through the scene. This passage is closely associated with an ancient marble statue known to us as The Laocoon Group. The Roman copy stands today in the Vatican Museum. The Greek original is lost to us physically, but lives on through Vergil’s pen. It is widely believed that Vergil was familiar with the statue and even drew inspiration from the marble coils of the serpents and the desperation of the victims painfully immortalized in stone.

I enjoy reading this scene with students while the Laocoon Group is projected upon the wall of the classroom. The statue captures a single moment in time, but which one? From what place in Vergil’s lines might we draw this moment? How apt is his description? These are wonderful questions to stimulate student discussion on Vergil’s choice of words, his arrangement of the words, and the progression of the scene. Of course, the poem is not meant to be an exact description of the art and we can find differences. This too is a good exercise.

 

  • What is the same?
  • Which lines seem to describe the statue and how?
  • What is different?
  • Where did Vergil depart from the statue and why?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From there it is worth demonstrating how the iconic statue has inspired others beyond Vergil. Such lessons demonstrate just how timeless the classics are, and how much we can benefit from knowing classical literature and its references. Not just benefit intellectually, but also benefit by deriving pleasure and occasionally a really good laugh.

If you wish to integrate this art-literature study with science, consider this 1924 photograph of a statue by Josef Hyrtl.

Laocoon and his Sons by Josef Hyrtl

Josef Hyrtl was a 19th century Austrian anatomist.  In 1835 he presented his thesis, prepared in Latin, entitled Antiquitates anatomicae rariores. As a student he was a prosector in anatomy, preparing bodies for dissection. His work caught the attention of a Professor Czermark and through this connection Hyrtl came to be curator of a museum which featured anatomical displays. Hyrtl contributed many pieces to the collection himself, including this one inspired by the death of Laocoon in Book II.

 

 

 

 

 

The Wilde Collection arrangement of Laocoön and His Sons at Death by Natural Causes

 

 

 

Drawing inspiration form Hyrtl’s interpretation of Laocoon, Lawyer Douglas, Tyler Zottarelle of the Wilde Collection and artist Joshua Hammond created their own interpretation of the Laocoon Group for an exhibit titled Death by Natural Causes at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Whether or not this gruesome death was exactly “natural” is up for debate, but it is a fascinating study in anatomy, art, and literature to compare the two anatomical creations.

 

 

 

 

 

And then there is this sculpture, a sci-fi interpretation of the classic.

Storm Troopers vs. Dianoga

 

 

If you wish to integrate this art-literature study with history or political science, consider the following set of political cartoons from three different generations. Each one show cases politicians entangled with policies that seem to devour them. This classical scene is one that transcends time and culture. It is worth considering that Laocoon too could be perceived as a political casualty. He was a pious priest, fulfilling his duty, seeking to do his best to serve gods and country. Unfortunately, he was on the wrong side of the winning team in the foreign-policy entanglement of Troy vs. Greek Federation. He became a pawn of the gods. How does his story compare to those represented here (if at all)? What pathos might that create for those who know the classical tale?

 

1930’s pre WWII Isolationism

 

1960’s European Conflict

 

 

 

2000’s Energy Crisis and Foreign Entanglements

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lastly, there is one other artist to consider who took inspiration from the Roman version of The Laocoon Group. This artist was present in Rome as archaeologists uncovered the remains of the famous statue in January 1506, buried in the ground of a Rome vineyard owned by Felice de’ Fredis. Italy’s most beloved sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti visited the actual excavation site and at the Vatican when the repaired statue was put on display. Scholar’s believe, and it is hardly without doubt, that Laocoon’s torso with its twisted position was a source of great inspiration for Michelangelo and appears in multiple works, most notably the figure of Christ in his painting of The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. Study carefully the position of the torso, his raised right arm, and even the legs. Like Laocoon, Christ is viewing a scene of horrendous divine judgement. Unlike Laocoon, Christ is a willing sacrifice who then as a triumphant savior presides over a righteous judgement instead of falling victim to a perverted one.


 

While Christ’s head is clearly not that of the tortured Laocoon, it is highly probable that Michelangelo took for this feature the model of the ancient sculpture Apollo Belvedere, also housed in the Vatican Museum.

What can we conclude from this study of Laocoon and the snakes in both art and poetry? Namely, that the classics are timeless. Their message continues to inspire and to bear relevance to the world around us today. From them we can draw a sense of truth and beauty and goodness that continues to resonate within the mind and soul of man.

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