Why Didn’t Laocoön Shout?

One of the most surprising discoveries those Romans made when they began to dig in old Rome, looking for beautiful ruins, was the Laocoön. Michelangelo himself dropped what he was doing and hurried to see it lifted out of the dirt that had covered it for a thousand years.

It was a sculptural group from Hellenistic times showing the old priest and his sons being killed by snakes. Laocoön twists in agony and despair. But his body isn´t the miserable puppet or sack of sick-white flesh that the Italians of the Middle Ages might have made of him but the proud encarnation of the old gods, with all its noble “architecture” and dignity. It was the greatest example Michelangelo had ever seen of the sublime nude and it impressed him so much that there is a trace of this Laocoön in all his statues after the David.
Almost a hundred years later Bernini was still studying that old Greek Laocoön and getting ideas from it.

And when the artists were through with it along came the philosophers. A German called Winckelman wondered why the priest, Laocoön, whose whole body is tensed in pain, had been given such a philosophic face by the old sculptors (there were three of them, the work is signed). Why hadn´t they made him cry out in pain? Once they had done such a conscientious job showing the suffering in every inch of the limbs and torso, why had they stopped with his face, of all places? The face is precisely where you look to see what´s going on inside a man; and such a resigned face seems to contradict what the body is screaming. How easy it would have been for those great sculptors to carve the cords and bulging arteries in Laocoon´s neck and the swollen veins on his temples. And open his mouth for the biggest, loudest shout that sculpture had ever showed. Wasn´t it odd that they hadn´t?

Wincklemann was a scholar of the old school, which means lots of Greek. He thought he could answer his own question. “Your Greek,” he said, “didn´t shout or wail. He controlled himself. Dignity. No matter what you did to him he kept his mouth shut. He knew how to bear the pain and the injustice of life. I wish more of us were like him.” He also said that those three sculptors must have been real philosophers who would have behaved the same way as Laocoön when the chips were down.

That answer got a response from another German named Lessing. He said he agreed with Winckelmann that the Greeks were noble, philosophical sufferers, but that´s not the reason Laocoön was silent—or only sighed a little. Actually, the Greeks had no objection to a good shout when something hurt. And he brought examples from Greek drama. According to him, all the big heroes had shouted all through the poems and plays and nobody thought that was improper. It was natural, was what it was; and, above all, the Greeks were natural. They weren´t ashamed of their feelings, even their weaknesses, but they didn´t let them keep them from being courageous when they had to be courageous. They weren´t like a lot of modern fellows he could mention who had the wrong idea of being human. Nowadays we prided ourselves on our stiff upper lip and taught our young men to show their bravery by keeping their fears and anguish to themselves.

No, said Lessing. The reason the marble Laocoön didn´t shout was not a MORAL one. Even Vergil in the Aeneid mentions his screaming (“clamores horrendos ad sideram tollit”). The reason was an AESTHETIC one. According to the Greek ideas of beauty, that shout would have been out of place. It would have killed the statue. Why?

Beauty and suffering don´t go together. In a beautiful picture or statue you leave everything that is unpleasant out. Violent expression has to be avoided because it disturbs the serenity that beauty requires; it distorts perfect proportions. For example, you won´t find rage or despair depicted in any of the old works. If those artists did have to depict suffering, they softened its effects on their figures in the interest of beauty.

The Greeks, said Lessing, took their beauty seriously. The state even made laws about it. In Thebes, for instance, you could be fined for drawing a caricature because that exaggerated the ugly, the grotesque side of life. Portraits were restricted because the government felt there shouldn´t be a proliferation of un-ideal faces everywhere around to see. There should be only models of perfection.

So the Laocoön was a very tricky subject for a statue. The story, which is in the Aeneid by Vergil, says that Laocoön, a Trojan priest at the time of the siege of Troy, had made the gods angry at him for doing what any patriot would do: he warned the Trojans about the Wooden Horse. Neptune sent serpents out of the ocean to kill him and his two sons, presumably by strangling them, though in our statue one of the snakes is biting Laocoön´s hip. How do you show this little episode and keep the cool required by beauty? Your subject is anguish.

The artists (all three of them) had a real problem. But they reached a consensus. They would take the bull by the horns and show Laocoön right at the moment of greatest distress. They would depict the climax of the story—his execution. They would dramatize the moment of panic with twisting and broad gesture. They would show anguish in all the muscles of his body. But when they came to his face—to that mirror to the soul—they would hold back. A wide-open mouth, a scream to the high heavens, though it would have been realistic, would have distorted the hero´s features in an almost disgusting way. Coming upon the statue, the viewer would have looked the other way, just as you do when your eyes fall on deformity, wailing, madness.
The sculptors softened the wild anguish in the face to a more distant and general grief with resignation, in the interest of beauty. Now we can look squarely at the scene and feel pity for poor Laocoön instead of revulsion.


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20 Responses to Why Didn’t Laocoön Shout?

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  2. wrjones says:

    What incredible skill they had so long ago.

    Good story.

  3. 100swallows says:

    You bet, Bill, but not all of them were as good as this, which is one of the great masterpieces of all times. It’s hard to imagine that it is the work of three. One theory is that it was made by a man and his two sons.

  4. kimiam says:

    I do love this sculpture. Incredible expression and the feet… the overall anatomy -I am in awe.

    Wouldn’t it be fun if he had a loofa on a stick in a modern version?

  5. rich says:

    Absolutely powerful! The harmonious interplay of all those muscels and limbs. Also the writhing serpent is quite impressive. Part of it is missing, also some hands.

    I like to draw. To copy this piece, trying to complete those missing parts – or just looking at it, trying to figure out – quite an imaginative challenge.

  6. erikatakacs says:

    The artist who carved Laokoon was just as great as Michelangelo. The sons seem to be carved by a different person, also skillfully done, but not even close in effectiveness. I wish I could see this sculpture in person.

  7. kimiam says:

    I really can’t tell if they were carved by a different person. If the sons are meant to be children, they were carved by someone who studied adult anatomy and simply made small aduts with fewer lines and less defined musculature. The arch of the foot and the toes on the small figure on left is not correct, but I can’t compare it to the arches on the other feet because I can’t see them plus…in stone if you accidentally remove too much, you have to redesign. Could have been a mistake this simple that led to that arch.

    The toes of the figure on the left are very long and slender and not as carefully laid out in relation to each other as the central figure, but many artists will put more detail and care into the area they consider most important.

    This artist trying to sculpt children might be something similar to Michelangelo trying to sculpt a woman. He knew women are different than men because they have breasts, but wasn’t quite sure exactly how they went.

    Not enough information. Maybe if they let me get up there and lay hands on the sculpture and study it in person!!

  8. 100swallows says:

    erika and kimiam: I got news for you girls: you can’t get up there and put your mits on the Laocoön (though I did). It’s in a sort of chapel or recess 20 feet from a rope, which is as far as they let you get. At least a few years ago it wasn’t 20 feet away AND behind glass like the Pietà. I took a deep breath, jumped the rope, and walked right up to the statue, ignoring the alarms. I wanted to know if I could see the joints but the noise and the people at the rope yelling and waving to me to please come back, plus the guilt of doing what I was doing, made me so nervous I didn’t see a thing. I did touch the breast of the great Laocoön. An old guard simply came to tell me that crossing over the rope wasn’t allowed. I should have simply asked the Vatican boss (not the Pope I guess) to let me have a closer peek. He would have, I’m sure.

  9. erikatakacs says:

    Lol, Swallows, you bad boy! But it was worth a try, right? I read on the sculpture and found interesting the story of the once missing right arm. But you are the storyteller, a good subject for another post.

  10. 100swallows says:

    See Brenda Harness’ story of Nero’s house and the discovery of the Laocoön at http://www.finearttouch.com/What_The_Roman_Emperor_Nero_Did_For_You.html

  11. rich says:

    I’ve read Brenda Harness’ story – thanks for digging all that out!

  12. 100swallows says:

    Hey, rich, do you know that one scholar believes the Laocoön is by Michelangelo himself? See this:

    I wrote some of my reasons for not believing this attribution in the comments after this post. But I would like to hear the complete case.

  13. I do love anatomy. One of my favorite works besides Laocoon is the Barberini Faun now in Munich. You can see it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Barberini_Faun_front_Glyptothek_Munich_218_n1.jpg

    You know there’s another Laocoon interpretation. And that is that he was punished by Poseidon for procreating on sacred temple grounds. That he just had the incredible bad luck to have just thrown a spear at the Trojan Horse at exactly the moment when Poseidon’s sea serpents came after him. He (Vergil actually) is credited with the quote about don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Naturally not in those words, but something to that effect in Greek as you doubtless know.

  14. 100swallows says:

    Thanks for the leads, Brenda.
    I never heard that second (and third?) version of Laocoön’s sin. As to the Vergil quote–do you mean: Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes”? I remember the day I translated that in high-school. It means “I fear the Danaans (Greeks) even if [or ‘when’] they bring gifts”. Latin, not Greek.
    Do you know what that Barberini Faun is?–a sex bomb. The Romans threw it down from Hadrian’s Tomb on the attacking Gauls.

  15. iondanu says:

    I’ve learned, as always, new things from your story, swallows! I didn’t know caricature was forbidden in Theba! Interesting twist…

    As for Laocoon, what is puzzling me is the fact that the “children” are in fact perfect adults, only smaller in size…I suppose every sculptor sculpted one? Not right…

  16. 100swallows says:

    Thanks Danu. I will look up my source for that information about Thebes–I think it was in the notes to my Lessing. A fellow never knows just what to believe about old Greece–about Lycurgus and Solon, for instance, and even about old Sparta. There was so much legend.
    As for the different scale of those figures in the Laocoön group, your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps the two little nudes were meant to highlight the big central one–like two chorus girls beside the star.

  17. I love, love, love this site so much. This is one of my favorite posts you’ve written. What an incredible sculpture, and fantastic explanations. I love it that you crossed the rope to touch it.

  18. 100swallows says:

    Thanks a lot, Moonbeam. I bet you would have crossed that rope too. I hope you are feeling better now.

  19. Lucian says:

    Very good commentary on this masterpiece. In my mind, this may very well be the crowning achievement of sculptural art, since it has beauty, drama and a sense of unbreakable integrity.

    However, just as those above me have commented, while the body of Laocoon shows supreme artistic skills, his children are, as far as we can see, works of inferior sculptors. Not only the latter include some glaring anatomical mistakes, but the whole approach towards their body anatomy tends to a maneerist style very much in debt of the classical school. Whatever the case, Laocoon’s children seem to function as mere compositional implements to cast light upon the larger-than-life central subject, which is where their anguished faces look upon while Laocoon glances right at you in a way reminescent of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson.

    As for the reasons why he didn’t shout, I would hover around the view they cast him as an embodiment of arete (“virtue”), which is fully conformant with the whole body of hellenistic sculpture and commands aesthetic principles of beauty, order and ballance. Few if any greco-roman sculptures show anything but stately figures, even though many sculptors had such skills that they could convincingly depict ANY human emotion, including fear, cowardice or whatever vice common among mankind. The reason they choose figures who stand firm and never falter is indeed aesthetic, but without arete there would be no quest to carve such desirable traits into stone. So, in other words, Greeks sculpted models of perfection.

    The only thing Laocoon gives in to his human nature is the anguish of his body, while his face, thought to be the window to his soul, struggles to remain firm and beautiful to the very last moment. This is why Laocoon doesn’t shout!

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