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Garry WillsThis book is a teasing exploration of . . . epistomological mysteries in the history of art.
—New York Times
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Love ... needs no incentives, being self-sufficient, its own stimulus and reward; if it enjoys added benefits, it Is due not to friendship but to fortune. Thus, the man who finds a gem inside a fish is not a better, but a more fortunate, fisherman.... The farmer who while tilling the soil happened to discover under the Janiculum seven Greek and seven Latin books and the tomb of King Numa Pompilius was really doing something else; often there came to me in Rome a vinedigger, holding in his hands an ancient jewel or a golden Latin coin, sometimes scratched by the hard edge of a hoe, urging me either to buy it or to identify the heroic faces inscribed on them; and often while putting in supports for a more sound foundation a builder has discovered a golden urn or a treasure hidden in the ground. Which of these with their unusual treasure became famous for his artistry or talent? For these are the gifts of fortune, not the laudable merits of men. Much more worthy of the name of artist is the man who is stopped short, while performing his rightful labor, by a serpent sliding from a cave than the man working blindly who is happily bedazzled by the unexpected brilliance of hidden gold.
—PETRARCH, Familiar Letters
The Apollo Belvedere reentered the world around 1490 unannounced—at least in any document that comes down to us. A trove of statues in the Pergamene style, depicting various wounded and dead warriors, was unearthed in September 1514: this we know from aFilippo Strozzi letter, though we have little other evidence that the event excited much attention. The Tiber may have been discovered twice, first in the 1440s, when Poggio Bracciolini reported such huge crowds that the owner of the property reinterred the statue, and again in 1512, when according to a detailed account by Grossino the piece was identified and brought triumphantly to Pope Julius; in other words, both times documented, and both times the subject of much popular notice. A few bronzes and scores of friezes, sarcophagi, and sculpted triumphal arches were never discovered at all because they were never under ground. For many centuries they had decorated—or, depending on one's point of view, littered—the Roman cityscape, but throughout these earlier times, interest in them seems to have been sporadic. The Torso Belvedere, for us one of the definitive examples of the inspired and inspiring ancient masterpiece, was probably above ground for nearly a century before it received much attention.
GREEKS BEARING GIFTS
The discovery on 14 January 1506 of the Laocoön (fig. 1.1), another of these definitive works, is the most famous case of all, the very model of a high-publicity artistic event such as we are familiar with in our own time. Almost instantly the news traveled to Pope Julius II, who dispatched experts to make the identification. In March the pope bought the statue; by the first of July it was installed in a specially built niche in the Cortile Belvedere at the Vatican Palace near where it is exhibited today. It appears, in fact, that this installation for antiquities was already under construction even as the Laocoön was being found—which would clearly define the Laocoön as an idea whose time had come. Indeed, the opportune moment may have arrived quite precisely. Only eighteen years earlier, we hear in a letter to Lorenzo de' Medici of the nocturnal discovery of a small statue "with three beautiful little fauns on a marble base, all three belted around by a huge serpent"; but the author hazards no guess as to the subject of the work. As for the Esquiline find of 1506, there are many other indicators of fame: a flood of correspondence within the first month and a series of poetic responses throughout the sixteenth century; scores of drawings, copies, and re-creations in the work of virtually every Renaissance artist; instant political valorization as far in the future as the time of Napoleon, who procured the Laocoön for the Louvre, where it flourished for about as long as the emperor who brought it there.
The Laocoön is not unique. Doubtless it has been used too often as a paradigm, and in the service of too many divergent aesthetics. Indeed, the artistic and historical life of ancient sculpture in modern times has probably depended overmuch on elevating individual works to paradigmatic status, and not only the Laocoön. The Apollo Belvedere, adored by Winckelmann and associated with the famous "stille Einfalt und edle Grösse," has been the very emblem of Neoclassicism. The Torso Belvedere, sublime in its fragmentariness, has stood as the (literal) embodiment of an art based on inward struggle. For Hawthorne, it is the Marble Faun that symbolizes all the wayward eros of ancient and modern Rome. George Eliot has the Vatican Sleeping Ariadne define the heroine of Middlemarch as she is first perceived by her future husband. Rilke—slightly more generic in his tastes—hears the voice of an archaic torso of Apollo declaring "Du mußt dein Leben ändern."
Not that the present volume promises universality or even novel examples. It is nevertheless worth establishing from the outset that hundreds, perhaps thousands of ancient sculptural objects were found, placed in commerce, gazed at, written about, and copied in the course of the Renaissance. To emphasize those of special and enduring fame offers the same promises and pitfalls as does any other focus on a traditional canon: it records the cases that are most fully documented and that have touched the greatest number of individuals most deeply, but it tends to take their status for granted and fails to give a full picture of the culture where the canon itself is in the process of formation.
Now the rediscovery of ancient sculpture is not only the place where a canon is being formed; it is also a place where canonicity itself is receiving some of its crucial modern definitions. For that reason it seems appropriate, at least briefly, to allow the Laocoön exemplary status, since it is not only the most famous of all antiquities in the sixteenth century but also comes, through Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and others, to be the very symbol of art as a subject. Before Lessing, indeed before January of 1506, Laocoön was a pivotal but not very fully delineated character in the Aeneid, the Trojan priest who vehemently advises against accepting the wooden horse into the city and who is punished by the visitation of serpents that convinces the onlookers to disregard his advice. He does get to say the poem's most famous line—"timeo Danaos et dona ferentis"—which, along with the statue itself, earns him a potentially high recognition factor on two counts. But the Virgilian character can hardly be said to haunt the Renaissance imagination. When Filippino Lippi, who died in 1504, depicts Laocoön in a fresco at the Medici Villa Poggio a Caiano—an almost unique instance of this subject prior to 1506—it is more as a classicizing reference to sacred customs than to the subject of the Trojan War. Laocoön's life really does change on that winter day on the Esquiline Hill, for which we have an eyewitness account, a letter written sixty years later by Francesco da Sangallo, son of the famous architect Giuliano. Both father and son were present at the scene of discovery:
The first time I was in Rome when I was very young, the pope was told about the discovery of some very beautiful statues in a vineyard near S. Maria Maggiore. The pope ordered one of his officers to run and tell Giuliano da Sangallo to go and see them. He set off immediately. Since Michelangelo Buonarroti was always to be found at our house, my father having summoned him and having assigned him the commission of the pope's tomb, my father wanted him to come along, too. I joined up with my father and off we went. I climbed down to where the statues were 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, chatting as well about the ones in Florence.
It is a great narrative of discovery. The Florentine Sangallo family is appropriating Roman antiquities, while the presence of Michelangelo has all the makings of a great artist-myth, a Cinquecento visual-arts equivalent to the moment in the Commedia when Dante first sees Virgil, whose voice "seems faint from long silence." The young Michelangelo, fresh from the Florentine triumph of the David, arrives for his first adult stay in Rome only to be present at the discovery and identification of the greatest sculptural masterpiece of antiquity and to establish thereby a personal link with his ancient colleagues.
So far as the Laocoön itself is concerned, what should strike us at once is the means of identification. Pliny the Elder wrote a Natural History in thirty-seven volumes, toward the end of which he included a history and description of the visual arts from early Greece to his own time, with particular attention to the objects visible in then-contemporary Rome. Pliny's volume was fairly widely read, especially by painters and sculptors, though it was hardly as well known as Virgil's Aeneid. Yet what these Renaissance Romans see first in that hole on the Esquiline is not Virgil's Trojan martyr who said "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" but a famous work of art as canonized by Pliny. Renaissance viewers of the Laocoön will not forget the Aeneid, of course. On the contrary, they will place Virgil's text in a highly charged comparative relation to the statue. Lodovico Dolce, for instance, attempts to destabilize the chronological priorities between Raphael and his literary sources by declaring that Virgil based his Laocoön on the statue; "it is a matter of mutual exchange," he declares, "that painters often seize their inventions from poets, and poets from painters." Actually, he uses the word cavare—to dig.
But the key term is exchange: the material object that emerges from the ground becomes the nexus point for the discourse of ancient narrative or history, as contained in the Aeneid, and the discourse of art as contained in the Natural History. As a consequence the visible work of art develops its own privilege and priority, not merely as the contingent material representation of a remoter but truer historical reality but rather as a reality of its own. In the face of these new interrelations, Sangallo and the other onlookers respond in two ways: they draw and they talk. They create more works of art, and they conduct an impromptu seminar on the history of art. The words are a sign that art has a history that deserves to stand alongside the history of power or of nature, while the establishment of a past history of art directs the course of art's future history. The images are a sign that art can be made not only out of dogma, out of natural observation, or out of historical events, but also out of art itself. The words and images together produce aesthetics—which is to say a philosophy and a phenomenology proper to art itself. The unearthed object becomes the place of exchange not only between words and pictures but also between antiquity and modern times and between one artist and another.
A piece of marble is being rediscovered, but at the same time a fabric of texts about art is being restitched. Writings from later antiquity—Ovidian poetry, Roman novels, Greek romances, lyrics, and rhetorical exercises—turn out to be filled with passages, typically what are called ekphrases, in which narrative is framed not as reality but as the contents of an artist's picture. These passages stand in ambiguous relation to the actual objects emerging from the ground. Ekphrases are categorically different from the works of art they supposedly describe; indeed, the poetic description of an imaginary sculpted Laocoön would doubtless not resemble the statue in Rome any more than Virgil's narrative does. Yet this fabric of texts tantalizes readers with the possibility that, together with the rediscovered works themselves, it will reconstruct a complete visual antiquity. In addition, the ekphrastic literature brings with it a set of ways to look at the visual arts and a set of relations between aesthetic representation and language.
As it happens, the Pliny text that springs to Sangallo's mind and enables him to identify the statue is notably un-ekphrastic:
Nec deinde multo plurium fama est, quorundam claritati in operibus eximiis obstante numero artificum, quoniam nec unus occupat gloriam nec plures pariter nuncupari possunt, sicut in Laocoonte, qui est in Titi imperatoris domo, opus omnibus et picturae et statuariae artis praeferendum. Ex uno lapide eum ac liberos draconumque mirabiles nexus de consilii sententia fecere summi artifices Hagesander et Polydorus et Athenodorus Rhodii. [36.37]
The reputation of some works of art has been obscured by the number of artists engaged with them on a single task, because no individual monopolizes the credit nor again can several of them be named on equal terms. This is the case with the Laocoon in the palace of Titus, a work superior to any painting and any bronze. Laocoon, his children, and the wonderful clasping coils of the snakes were carved from a single block in accordance with an agreed plan by those eminent craftsmen Hagesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, all of Rhodes.
There is a kind of entropy in the conjunction of these words with the found object. The Natural History becomes a treasure map when the object is discovered just where Pliny says it will be, and this piece of fortune (which does not frequently repeat itself) confers special authority on the text's account of aesthetic history. Pliny presents the Laocoön as a unity in multiplicity, an object made from a single piece of marble but by three different sculptors who somehow managed to work together, to the glory of their creation but the detriment of their personal fame. Both of these claims reverberate loudly. The object itself is the most complexly articulated of ancient statues; hence the notion that it is constructed out of a single piece of stone amounts to an assertion of almost magical status. Further, the idea of collaboration on a work so stylistically unified reflects powerfully on the individualist and fame-obsessed world in which the object was rediscovered.
Still more important is Pliny's statement that the Laocoön is the greatest of all works of art; it is a marble statue that is "superior to any painting and any bronze." He puts it in those terms because he has divided art objects rigorously into these generic categories that correspond to the materials out of which they are made. For a Renaissance reader this way of assigning the first prize cannot help but summon up a consciousness of medium or genre and especially of the rivalry among the media, often referred to as the paragone, which means both "comparison" and "competition." It is just in these years that Leonardo is filling notebook pages with discussions of the superiority of painting over sculpture or of the visual arts over music, while in the near future the whole career of Michelangelo will be read (perhaps even by the artist himself) as an agon among artistic media. The paragone, in other words, is a hot topic, and the Laocoön emerges from the ground as the embodiment of triumph in the comparison of the arts.
But it is the making of new words—the talking that Sangallo reports at the discovery site—that really testifies to the unearthing of aesthetic consciousness. The Laocoön statue figures in countless verbal artifacts of the early sixteenth century, letters describing the discovery, poems extolling the work itself, representations of the statue in Renaissance histories of art. The question of Pliny's single piece of marble, for instance, turns out to have been the center of considerable discussion, as is evident from a letter by Cesare Trivulzio written about six months after the discovery, in which he asserts that Giancristoforo Romano and Michelangelo, "the leading sculptors of Rome," have denied absolutely that the work could be a single stone. "They say that Pliny was deceived, or wished to deceive others, in order to render the work more impressive.... The authority of Pliny is great, but our artists can also be right; nor should one undervalue that ancient saying: how fortunate the arts would be if they were judged solely by artists." Once again Michelangelo is invoked, here as part of a complicated construction of authority. The text of Pliny can be disproved by the ocular experience of unearthing the objects themselves, though only when evaluated, as Trivulzio says, "da persone peritissime"—by supreme experts. The conjunction of text and object (curiously, on the very subject of conjunction) raises questions about textual authority itself by exposing the rhetoricity of the text. The solution to these uncertainties is to find truth in the object rather than in the text and to place the discourse of art in the hands of artists themselves.
Poetic responses to the newly unearthed statue often betray a desire to place art in the hands of artists. Like those present at the discovery, these writers say less about the Trojan War than about the history and emotional power of art. On a number of occasions, the form, medium, and condition of the material object come to be part of the narrative rather than merely its external representation. The humanist and papal courtier Jacopo Sadoleto, after celebrating the artwork itself and the miracle of its rediscovery in a newly reborn Rome, begins his account of the narrative with a rhetoricized list of emotional topics; the climactic phrase, after father, children, snakes, and wounds, is "veros, saxo moriente, dolores." "Dying in stone" is syntactically ambiguous: as it is enveloped by the "true sufferings," it suggests at once that marble is in opposition to the reality of the anguish and also that stone is the fitting medium for the individual's death. Evangelista Maddaleni Capodiferro (another figure of the papal court, of whom we shall hear more) makes the point more directly by suggesting that it is part of Laocoön's punishment at the hands of Athena that he continue to live his life in Parian marble—in effect, a further metaphorical turn on the much praised longevity of the art object, thus rendered as a pleasure to the modern viewer but as a pain to the (fictive) person under view. An anonymous contemporary epigram goes furthest to make the art object into the story:
Laocoon natique cadunt Trionidis ira:
Ille qui ad Troiam vulnere laesit equum.
Nec satis hoc: Rhodi artifices mirabile visu
marmore restituunt. Hos dea condit humo.
Ecce iterum redeunt. Quanta est iam numinis ira,
dextera, qua laesa est machina, trunca perit.
Laocoön and his sons fall owing to the wrath of the goddess: he who brought Troy down with the harm done by the horse. Nor is that all. The Rhodian artists, amazing to see, have brought them back in marble. The goddess laid them in the earth, and here they are again returned to us. How great is even now the wrath of the divinity: the mangled right hand, in which the statue was harmed, has been destroyed.
The making of the original statue, its loss in the ground, and the lack of Laocoön's right arm when it is unearthed all become continuing episodes in the original tale of the goddess's wrath. Even the thousand years of neglect that have mutilated the statue become part of its narrative.
Implicit in all these responses—perhaps in all ekphrasis—is a sort of paragone a tre. Poet-observers are in competition both with the narrative material (itself generally deriving from other poets) and with the mediating art object. But they may also make alliances with either of their competitors against the other—that is, they may declare words to be the superior and necessary medium, or they may identify their task as the verbal celebration of the visual artist's triumph over the original material. In the same letter quoted above, Cesare Trivulzio finishes his attempt at capturing the statue for his son who has not seen it by relying on Sadoleto, "who has described Laocoön and his sons no less elegantly with his pen than the very makers of the work realized him with their chisel. In the end, those who read Sadoleto's verses won't have all that much need to see the statue itself, so well does he place every detail before your eyes." Curiously similar is Lessing's statement in the appendix to Laocoön that he is publishing the Sadoleto poem in its entirety because "it can well serve in place of an engraving." Such a casual reference to the exchangeability of a poem and a picture sorts ill with all Lessing's intricate differentiations between visual and poetic art. Or is an engraving itself a kind of inferior ekphrasis? Lessing, it should be remembered, had never seen the thing itself.
What places the unearthed object at the center of these aesthetic debates is its specially elliptical quality. That the statue emerges from the ground, that it is to some extent deprived of physical and historical context, that it is imperfect—all these circumstances contribute to a sense that the image is in itself incomplete. The experience must be finished; and words play their role not only by describing or praising the object as work of art but also by assigning emotions and words to the characters as people. In fact, there is a two-thousand-year-long debate as to what sounds Laocoön ought to be emitting. Virgil has him making horrible cries to heaven like the bellowing of a sacrificial animal, whereas Sadoleto hears him faintly moaning. Winckelmann marveled at the stoicism of a figure who could suffer so greatly yet (apparently) not bellow, as Virgil's Laocoön does. Lessing, on the other hand, took the Laocoön to be the very keystone of the difference between art and poetry because the figure in his control and silence epitomizes an ideal visual beauty that is not involved with the realistic particulars of verbal description or the realistic outpourings of verbal agony. The Laocoön's medium, once again, determines the message.
The visual and material aspect of the statue demands completion as much as the verbal. The power of the work in three dimensions exercised a kind of imperative on painters and draughtsmen that they re-create it in two dimensions; while its fragmentary condition exercised a similar imperative on sculptors that they complete it—either in replicas or upon the thing itself. Its power and its history as a great Roman icon further inspired architects and designers to "stage" it—that is, to give it an appropriate setting, whether it be the eventual canonical location in the Belvedere courtyard of Pope Julius or placement in a mythic version of the rediscovery site. These responses initiate what we might call a participatory art. Such an encounter erases the distinction between connoisseurship and creativity and creates an independent history of art by which a Renaissance painter is related to the sculptors of the Laocoön not only because of a school, a style, or a common patronage network but also because the artists exist in a collective realm of inspiration.
Artists could participate in the Laocoön much more directly, however, than by simply sketching it. We know both from early documents and from observation of the statue in its present state that the only significant pieces missing in 1506 were the right arms of Laocoön and the younger son; as ancient sculpture goes, in other words, the Laocoön was almost pristine. Still, it was a fragment, in a state somewhere between that of its two perennial companions, the Apollo and the Torso. And fragmentariness is perhaps the most crucial fact of all about rediscovered sculpture. If Laocoön's emotional expression seems to require a completion, his body requires it even more. It is the physical incompleteness of so much ancient sculpture that enables both artists and viewers to enter into the works, to decide what the works depict, to define or alter the narrative, to view the works as beautiful shapes rather than only as narratives, and, finally, to take part literally in the creation by restoring the objects in a particular way.
These processes of reimagining and restoring demonstrate just how difficult it was for the Renaissance—and is for us—to arrive at the concept of an authentic original, let alone at its embodiment in stone. Most of the statues the Renaissance could unearth, and certainly the Laocoön, were themselves Roman copies after Greek originals. This is a fact that Renaissance viewers did, and did not, confront. The particular gap, say, between the objects in the Belvedere collection and the legendary oeuvres of Phidias or Praxiteles, will carry a powerful charge for a culture just beginning to make painful distinctions between anachronism and historicism. (All the more potent in the case of the Laocoön, which, almost uniquely, comes with a correct attribution—though to artists of little fame.) Meanwhile, the Renaissance busies itself by altering the form in which posterity will define the "true" Laocoön. Different projects for restoring Laocoön's right arm succeed one another thick and fast in the middle of the sixteenth century; these range from the diagonal, which dramatically replicates the left leg, to the nearly vertical, which seems especially heroic, to the slightly flexed, which is perhaps the most tortured. The Laocoön of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries—in effect, the canonical Laocoön for the modern imagination—is of the diagonal type (fig. 1.2; see also fig. 5.4). And as though to usher in our own revisionist century, in 1905 a German archaeologist discovered in a Roman stonemason's shop what is almost certainly an authentic piece from the real Laocoön's elbow, which turns out to be more flexed than any of the reconstructions; curiously, it resembles most closely some of the earliest ideas of reconstruction.
What is of particular interest here is not so much the choice of a certain arm position as the way the Renaissance understands the project of completing or solving the riddle of the statue. Around 1510, the great architect and keeper of the Vatican treasures Donato Bramante seems to have conducted a contest among a group of fledgling artists hanging around Rome, asking each to make a wax version of the Laocoön suitable for casting. Raphael, acting as judge, awarded first prize to Jacopo Sansovino, who ultimately became one of the leading architects of Venice. This episode, as reported by Vasari, demonstrates that within four years of its discovery the Laocoön has already become the basis for an academy of design—just as these famous ancient statues and their copies will continue to be for another four hundred years. The winning entry is cast in bronze and becomes a valuable work of art with its own history; but for the moment, at least, the pope's Laocoön remains as it is, and the replica is understood to be a work by Sansovino.
Ten years on, things have changed. It is Vasari, once again, who will eventually tell the story:
There had recently returned from France Cardinal Bernardo Divizio of Bibbiena, who, perceiving that King Francis possessed not a single work in marble, whether ancient or modern, although he much delighted in such things, had promised his Majesty that he would prevail on the Pope to send him some beautiful work. After this Cardinal there came to the Pope two Ambassadors from King Francis, and they, having seen the statues of the Belvedere, lavished all the praise, at their command on the Laocoon. Cardinals de' Medici and Bibbiena, who were with them, asked them whether the King would be glad to have a work of that kind; and they answered that it would be too great a gift. Then the Cardinal said to them: "There shall be sent to his Majesty either this one or one so like it that there shall be no difference." And, having resolved to have another made in imitation of it, he remembered Baccio [Bandinelli], whom he sent for and asked whether he had the courage to make a Laocoon equal to the original. Baccio answered that he was confident that he could make one not merely equal to it, but even surpassing it in perfection.
The Laocoön (among other art objects) has become an important pawn in international politics. The elaborate verbal negotiations hide—and reveal—just how much the French want the statue and how little the pope is willing to give it up. At this moment is born the idea of a replica that is worth just as much as the original. Bandinelli, of whom we shall hear much in the present volume, is the ferocious competitor who thinks he can outdo everybody, notably his contemporary Michelangelo; at the same time, he derives his only great successes from copying ancient works. True to his reputation, he boasts that he will produce a Laocoön that is better than the Laocoön. The political valorizing of the Laocoön quite naturally adds to its aesthetic value the status of currency (in every sense of the word). The Laocoön becomes exchangeable for diplomatic goods and services and also interchangeable with other Laocoöns. Fittingly, Bandinelli not only creates this improved Laocoön but also constructs a new right arm for the actual Belvedere statue—presumably, to bring it in line with his own complete version of the work. (In the end Francis I gets neither of these Laocoöns. The pope likes Bandinelli's Laocoön and ships it back to his native Florence; the French king has to make do with a bunch of plaster casts provided by Primaticcio and Cellini—which may tell us a good deal about the future history of French art.)
Ten years later the right arm of the Laocoön needs to be invented once again—either the Bandinelli arm was never attached or it was damaged—and in 1532 there is no doubt but that the newly commissioned limb will be joined directly to the ancient work. The process of replicating has, in other words, imposed itself even more strongly upon the original. According to one tradition, Michelangelo was asked to provide this new arm, but he declined and passed the commission on to a younger associate, Montorsoli—altogether a more tractable figure than Bandinelli. It is certain that Montorsoli did execute an arm that was attached, corresponding to the familiar diagonal position. It is appropriate to surmise that Michelangelo did not wish to touch so directly upon the marble of the ancient work itself, just as it has been said that he was opposed to restoring the Torso Belvedere for similar reasons. But the arm needs to be made yet once more around 1540, and many believe that this newest limb (fig. 1.3), with its powerful upright flex that seems like a cross between Bandinelli and the modern version, was actually executed by Michelangelo. Perhaps he changed his mind during those ten years and decided to put aside his reverence and impose himself on the Laocoön. Whoever planned this work certainly did impose on the statue: in order for the new arm to fit, the statue's original shoulder was severely sliced back. In these various approaches we may see both a diachronic history—that is, a movement toward ever-increasing imposition of the modern artist on the ancient work—and at the same time a set of synchronic alternatives that define Renaissance theory and the practice of imitation, emulation, and (a term we hear less of in the literary discourse of this topic) mutilation.
The full life of the Laocoön in the visual culture of the Renaissance goes far beyond restorations, copies, or sketches of the statue itself; from the time of its discovery it inserts itself into the visual imagination and becomes the basis for new image making. This kind of story—often using this very example—has been recounted many times. A succession of historical insights from the work of Aby Warburg to that of Fritz Saxl and Ernst Gombrich, among others, has taught us to see in antique images and motifs qualities of inherent attractiveness through which creative artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries measured themselves and discovered their own originality. For our present purposes, let us say that it is necessary to look ever more closely at the historical machine that takes in the Laocoön at one end and extrudes the Sistine Ceiling at the other. It isn't a machine at all, of course, but—just to keep the metaphor alive—one might say that it is a mechanism of very complex circuitry. None of the stages can be taken for granted. Not all the ancient sources are masterpieces, nor are all individuals who operate under their influence inspired. And the processes of transmission are anything but smooth: in the encounter between the moderns and the ancients there may be more friction than flow, more fealty than freedom. Just where the friction rubs, and upon whom the fealty depends—these are the larger concerns of this book.
Titian, to cite one canonical example, quotes and develops the body of Laocoön throughout his career. A quarter century, along with many compositional differences, separates the two versions of the Crowning with Thorns (figs. 1.4, 1.5); but in both cases the Christ is a Laocoön with slightly recombined limbs, and the most original element in the disposition of the body is the right arm, precisely where the original statue was silent. The particular combination of turned waist and spread legs appears frequently in Titian's oeuvre: in the Sacrifice of Isaac (fig. 1.6) from Santa Maria della Salute in Venice or the Madrid Gloria (fig. 1.7), and somewhat less directly in many other instances, including the Madrid Fall of Man, the Washington Saint John on Patmos, and any of the various Adonises taking leave from Venus. This persistence of the Laocoön body is teasingly ambiguous. Are we to see the figure as an attempt to appropriate the classic image, in both senses of the word: that is, of a greatness that transcends time while simultaneously being stylishly identified with the time of antiquity? Are we to see it as meant to evoke typologically either the iconography or the emotional significance of the Laocoön statue itself, perhaps filtered through Virgil, Servius, or Landino? Are we to see that this constellation of limbs satisfies some special psychic needs of artist, patron, or contemporary viewers?
|List of Illustrations|
|Note on Texts and Translations|
Posted July 6, 2014