Lifestyle & Culture

Now Watch This: Rocky Renaissance

The Laocoon Group, or “Laocoon and His Sons,” probably a Roman copy of a Greek statue that influenced the art of Michelangelo. The subject of much learned discussion, it was featured by art historian Rocky Ruggiero in one of his many art lectures, which can be viewed online.

IF YOU’RE LUCKY, you’re a friend of Pamela Bowen, who with her husband Charlie Bowen wades through a ton of cultural and historical online offerings every month and—this is the important part—keeps a running tally of what’s been watched or listened to and what they’ve learned therefrom. 

But if you’re reading this, you’re a friend of MyLittleBird, and that’s all to the good because we’re going to start running  outtakes from Pamela’s voluminous annotated lists on a periodic basis. Here’s a taste.

By Pamela Bowen

We’ve recently discovered a new (to us) source of fascinating lectures on Italian Renaissance art and architecture by art historian Rocky Ruggiero. He is an excellent teacher and uses lots of beautiful and highly detailed photos. I’ve never known much about art, but in addition to explaining why a particular sculpture is considered good, he includes entertaining stories about its history. One of these stories impressed me so much that I “rewound the tape” and copied it here. Google “Laocoön sculpture” (the one that shows a man between two children being attacked by snakes) to see it.

Art historian and lecturer Rocky Ruggiero.

Many of the ancient Roman statues are copies of Greek ones, Ruggiero explained, but few of the Greek works survive because a majority of them were made of bronze. Because of the intrinsic value of this alloy, most of which is copper, most of the Greek statues were melted down through the ages. Fortunately, the Romans, who were very much a consumer culture, mass-produced reproductions of these Greek pieces, and so we have versions of the originals today—in marble, which the Romans preferred.

The sculpture that takes the cake in the courtyard of the Vatican is the famous Laocoön (pronounced lay-OCK-a-wan) piece, “Laocoön and His Sons” or the Laocoön Group, which was so influential in the work of Michelangelo. Laocoön was the priest of ancient Troy, who warned his fellow Trojans not to accept the famous wooden horse, that something was amiss. He actually hurled a spear at the wooden horse, and a hollow clunk was heard. But before the Trojans could heed his warning, one version of the story holds, Athena with the help of Poseidon sent sea serpents to kill him and his two sons. Technically the subject here is the assassination of Laocoön.
This work is described in a work called the Natural History, the encyclopedia of its time, written by the first-century Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder, who said that of all the sculptures in Rome, this was by far the greatest. He described it and described its location. With the fall of Rome and the sack of the city, the sculpture was lost, and remained lost for centuries. But the literary work that described it survived and was copied through the ages by Benedictine monks, who were transcribing every bit of ancient writing they could find. So the sculpture was known through Pliny’s description and everyone had heard of it, the way most of us have heard of the Colossus of Rhodes but none of us has seen it because it doesn’t exist.
The Renaissance world presumed that the sculpture was lost. Imagine the excitement then, when in 1506 a Roman farmer tilling his land came across fragments of a sculpture in the ground. He had no idea what it was, so he contacted authorities and, eventually, the Vatican itself. The reigning pope, Julius II, dispatched his architect and his new sculptor, named Michelangelo—31 years old at the time—who upon arrival started to put the pieces together. As they started to see it come together, they may have elbowed each other and exchanged knowing smiles, realizing they’d just rediscovered the greatest sculpture from ancient Rome, and when they re-read the description in Pliny, they made the declaration: We have rediscovered the greatest sculpture of ancient Rome.
This is roughly the equivalent of an archaeological dig in Florence, 1,500 years from now, unearthing a 17-foot, five-ton statue of a nude man with a sling over one shoulder. Of course I’m referring to Michelangelo’s David. This sculpture had the same impact in its world as David (arguably the greatest sculpture of all time) has had in ours.
Pope Julius immediately purchased the sculpture from the farmer. The amount of money he paid was exorbitant, about 2,000 papal ducats up front, the equivalent of about $2 million today, and 500 more per year for the rest of the farmer’s natural life. So finding this sculpture was roughly the equivalent of the farmer’s winning Powerball.
Michelangelo also hit the jackpot: He said seeing the Laocoön changed his approach to sculpture. In contrast to earlier Roman statues, there was no Classical ethos, perfect figures demonstrating perfect bodies. Now all of a sudden there was drama evoking emotion. If Laocoön were just sitting, he would be as muscular as all those static statues of athletes. But throw a couple of snakes onto him and all those muscles suddenly go into tension and flexion and we have a completely different thing. Look at the expression on his face, and on the faces of his sons.
The Laocoön, then, was the qualitative piece against which Michelangelo would measure himself thereafter. His Pietà and his David are beautiful statues, but they’re relatively static. They don’t move. Look at the art the sculptor produced after seeing the Laocoön—the Sistine Chapel ceiling: Suddenly all those figures seem to writhe and struggle and contort. Michelangelo realized the drama didn’t have to be narrative drama. It could be the movement of the figures.
What a story!
Rocky Ruggiero, originally from Rhode Island, got several degrees in art history and spent 20 years living in Florence teaching art history for various American universities. He founded Cultural Programs for the Arts, which offers specialized lectures in art and architectural history and educational seminars throughout the US. He starred in various TV documentaries concerning the Italian Renaissance for the History Channel, National Geographic and PBS. His website, rockyruggiero.com, offers dozens of upcoming live webinars, which cost from $20 to $125, and longer series (one program a week for five or six  weeks) for up to $395. But there’s usually a free one every week. And also (under “Online Learning,” click on “Webinar Recordings”) there are about 50 of his previous programs, all priced at $5. When you register on the site and buy a $5 program, it remains in your “Profile” area, available to be watched again and again. It’s worth checking out.


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