Ancient History & Civilisation



A famous drawing by J. H. Fuseli shows an artist, ‘overwhelmed’, as the title has it, ‘by the grandeur of ancient ruins’, sitting and weeping next to a colossal Roman sculpted foot (in fact, a foot – now in the Conservatori Museum in Rome – that once belonged to a statue of the Emperor Constantine). Fuseli’s point is not just that ancient art can still drive a man of sensibility to tears. He is also, rightly, emphasising that most of the masterpieces of Greek and Roman sculpture rediscovered since the Renaissance emerged from the ground in a sadly ruined state: headless corpses, dismembered torsos, tragically amputated limbs. His artist is weeping for what has been lost, as much as he is overwhelmed by antiquity’s continuing grandeur.

The fact that so much classical sculpture on show in the major museums of the world is, nonetheless, in apparently pristine condition is largely due to the efforts of Fuseli’s colleagues and predecessors, from Michelangelo to Thorvaldsen. As soon as a ruined masterpiece was unearthed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Rome, the leading sculptors of the day would instantly be on the scene. A series of well-rehearsed refusals to tamper with the surviving fragments of antique genius was usually their first reaction. But such scruples did not stand in their way for long; for these artists were soon busy equipping the new discovery with all the things it needed (from – literally – heads to toes) to make it look the part, as a perfect classical statue should. There are few exceptions to the general rule that any ancient sculpture apparently still endowed with its unbroken outstretched fingers (or raised arm, or, in most cases, nose) has actually been the beneficiary of some such modern makeover.


13. Fuseli ponders on the impact of classical antiquity.

Unsurprisingly, given the artists involved, some of these interventions have become highlights of the popular repertoire of classical sculpture. It was, for example, the addition of Bernini’s luscious mattress that elevated the awkward ‘Hermaphrodite’ in the Louvre to stardom. And Bernini again gave us the winning face of Eros, who peeps out from behind the legs of the sullen Ludovisi ‘Ares’ (a sneaking reminder of the god of war’s adultery with Eros’ mother, Aphrodite). In other cases, an attractive Renaissance restoration provided a serious rival to the later serendipitous – often, it must be admitted, suspiciously serendipitous – discovery of a statue’s ‘real’ missing part. When, some years after the recovery of the bulk of the sculpture, the ‘original’ legs of the Farnese ‘Hercules’ were said to have turned up, most people still preferred the ones that Michelangelo’s pupil, Guglielmo della Porta, had designed. It was a long time before those Renaissance additions were removed to make way for the ‘originals’ – and, even then, della Porta’s versions continued to be displayed next to the statue itself (as they are, once more, in the Naples museum today). Recent scholarship has taken these restorations very seriously. Despite a few fits of purism in the twentieth century (such as the notorious stripping of Thorvaldsen’s elegant neoclassical restorations from the most famous group of Greek sculpture in the Munich Glyptothek, or the Louvre’s decision to remove their ‘Dying Seneca’ from his gory red, Renaissance bath and stand him on a concrete block), art historians and museum curators have generally come to see the interventions of Bernini and his like as an important part of the ongoing, creative history of classical sculpture; not accurate maybe, but well worth studying in their own right. That creative history was, in fact, celebrated in a splendid exhibition at the Louvre, D’apres l’Antique – which featured not only a dazzling array of contemporary artists’ re-workings of classical themes (including modern art photographs of Fuseli’s foot, and no fewer than five of Salvador Dali’s full-size variations on the ‘Venus de Milo’), but also a well-chosen series of earlier restorations, replicas and reinventions of Greek and Roman sculpture.


14. The hermaphrodite springs a surprise. From one side (below) it appears to be a sleeping woman; from the other side (above) we see the complications.


The superbly illustrated catalogue makes an excellent introduction to the aims and methods of Renaissance restorers as well as to the often unexpected Nachleben of some of the most famous pieces of ancient statuary (in the last fifty years, the ‘Venus de Milo’, for example, has been used to advertise fast cars, gas cookers, Levi jeans, mineral water and support hosiery!). Restoration, of course, still goes on. We may think we have learned to admire ancient sculpture in its fragmentary state – but only up to a point. The ‘Venus de Milo’, tantalisingly unrestored, minus her arms, is one thing; the vast sculpture groups discovered in the 1950s in a cave near the village of Sperlonga, south of Rome, smashed into several thousand small pieces, are quite another. And inevitably the re-created masterpieces now on show in the Sperlonga museum contain as much plaster and resin as they do original marble; they are no less creative reinventions than any of the ambitious projects by Bernini or Thorvaldsen. The puzzle is not that these restorations took place (who, after all, would bother to visit Sperlonga to see a pile of marble chippings?); but rather that art historians, increasingly interested in the principles and practice of Renaissance intervention in ancient sculpture, have by and large turned a trusting blind eye to the activities of contemporary restorers – as if the ‘science’ of restoration was now above suspicion, unlike the creative fictions of the previous regime. The classic case of this blindness is the Vatican Museums’ restored ‘Laocoon’ group. Laocoon was that doomed priest of Troy, who, in Virgil’s Aeneid, failed to persuade his countrymen of the dangers of wooden horses and ‘Greeks bearing gifts’ and ended up throttled to death, along with his two sons, by serpents sent by his divine enemy Athena or Minerva.


15. The Trojan priest Laocoon is strangled to death by snakes. Here we see the ‘old’ version of the restoration with the arm of Laocoon stretched out, upright.

The flamboyant marble version in the Vatican, showing father and boys hopelessly grappling with the menacing snakes, became from the moment of its rediscovery in Rome in 1506 one of the best-known and most influential works of art ever, ancient or modern. It prompted some of the most important debates at the very origin of the modern discipline of art history (notably between Winckelmann and Lessing). It was soon established as an enduring household image across Europe and later America: for Karl Marx, it provided a symbol of the evils of capitalism; for Dickens a picture of Scrooge wrestling with his stockings; for generations of cartoonists, an instantly recognisable schema for all kinds of political trouble (Nixon strangled by his tapes, or plucky ‘Mac’ in 1960 ensnared in ‘the European problem’). It remains at the top of the academic agenda, and is the subject of two books, each by a leading figure in classical art history: My Laocoön by Richard Brilliant and Laocoonte: Fama e stile by Salvatore Settis.

The statue of ‘Laocoon’ appeared, in 1506, with an excellent literary pedigree. As both Brilliant and Settis emphasise, much of its immediate impact came from its obvious links with the Aeneid and with the description of a statue in Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedicNatural History. Pliny had written of a ‘Laocoon in the palace of the Emperor Titus … (showing) Laocoon, his children and the wonderful clasping coils of snakes carved from a single block … by Hagesander, Polydorus and Athenodorus, all from Rhodes’. The match with the statue that Pliny had seen and described was almost too good to be true. That said, the ‘Laocoon’, as it had been discovered, was far from complete. It was missing not just the usual extremities and the odd bits of snake; but each of the figures had lost their right arms. A huge debate followed (orchestrated by Michelangelo and Raphael among others) as to how those arms were to be restored – and particularly the arm of the central figure of Laocoon himself: bent back or extended straight up? By the 1530s, they had agreed that it should stretch up in the air; and each of the (many) succeeding restorations kept to this model, restoring the sons to match. This became the canonical image of the sculpture.

So far, nothing out of the ordinary. But, in the twentieth century, the story took a surprising twist. For, in 1906, Ludwig Pollak, a German archaeologist-cum-dealer, wandering around a mason’s yard in Rome, spotted a fragment of a bent marble arm, with bulging muscles similar in style to the ‘Laocoon’. He presented it to the Vatican Museums where it stayed in the stores until the 1950s – when the museum authorities decided that it actually belonged to the original ‘Laocoon’ itself, dismantled the statue, removed the traditional restorations and inserted the Pollak arm. There are, in fact, very strong arguments against this: the new arm does not directly join with the father’s broken shoulder (a wedge of plaster has had to be inserted); it appears to be on a smaller scale and in a slightly differently coloured marble; Pollak himself believed only that it came from a statue like the ‘Laocoon’; not to mention the fact that the circumstances of its discovery are vague at best, at worst suspicious – no more or less believable than the stories of ‘serendipitous’ finds of missing parts in the Renaissance. Not surprisingly the new restoration as a whole has not caught the popular imagination. (Cartoonists wanting an instantly recognisable ‘Laocoon’ still thrust his arm straight up.) For some reason, however, professional art historians have almost universally taken it on trust; loath, it seems, to subject the work of modern museum restorers to the same kind of hardheaded analysis as is given to that of leading Renaissance sculptors.

Brilliant and Settis are no exception: both explicitly endorse the ‘new’ ‘Laocoon’ in broad terms, though Brilliant would opt for a slightly more radical rearrangement of the three figures; and they apparently see no need to produce any particular argument in favour of the authenticity of the Pollak arm. In each case, this is a rare lapse. For both My Laocoön and Laocoonte, in their different intellectual styles (Brilliant working at the intersection of art history, philosophy of art and aesthetics; Settis in an Italian tradition of classics and cultural history), offer consistently perceptive analyses not just of the sculpture in its ancient context, but also of ‘Laocoon’ as an object of intense debate and controversy over the past 500 years. Brilliant, especially, approaches it as a paradigm object, raising central issues of art history and theory: identification, imitation, iconography, dating and response. The sculpture amounts to, in his words, ‘a topos for the analysis of interpretation itself’.

It is an excellent subject for that project. Almost every aspect of the ‘Laocoon’ has been hotly contested at some point since its rediscovery. Even the apparently simple ‘fact’ that the sculpture described by Pliny is one and the same as the Vatican ‘Laocoon’ has not proved quite so simple. True, the subject matter matches (Laocoon, sons and writhing serpents); and the find spot, though vague in the Renaissance sources, could conceivably be compatible with a ‘palace of Titus’. The problem is that Pliny claims his statue to be made out of one block of marble (‘ex uno lapide’), while ‘our’ ‘Laocoon’ is certainly not. Almost since the moment of discovery, the possible explanations for this have been clear: either Pliny was wrong; or ‘ex uno lapide’ does not mean what we think it does; or the ‘Laocoon’ that Pliny saw was not ours, but some other version of this famous subject that no longer survives. Settis plunges in to argue (probably rightly) that, in Latin, ‘ex uno lapide’ is a well-known conceit, signalling a tour de force, and should not be taken literally. Brilliant stands back from the fray to reflect, more generally, on how the existence of such a text inevitably affects our understanding of a work of art.

Pliny’s account also raises issues of dating and originality. He names three Rhodian artists – at first assumed to be the artists who sculpted ‘our’ statue at some disputed date, but obviously before Pliny wrote in the mid-first century AD. But what if, as many critics have since imagined, the Vatican ‘Laocoon’ is a ‘copy’ of some earlier Greek ‘original’? In that case, were Pliny’s sculptors responsible for the ‘original’ or the ‘copy’? And how do we explain the fact that the same three names were found inscribed on the base of one of those piles of marble fragments at Sperlonga? And can we possibly feed in the tantalisingly coincidental fact that the Emperor Tiberius is known to have had a narrow escape when some cave in which he was dining at Sperlonga collapsed? Theories proliferate wildly, and dates at least three centuries apart have been seriously put forward for our ‘Laocoon’. Most notorious of all, proposed in a whole stream of publications over the last thirty years, are the theories of Bernard Andreae, one time Director of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome and heavily involved in reassembling the fragments from Sperlonga into recognisable sculpture. On very little evidence indeed, Andreae claims the Vatican ‘Laocoon’ to be a copy of a bronze original, commissioned by the King of Pergamum in c. 140 BC – aimed, he speculates, at harmonising Pergamene-Roman relations by an appeal to common Trojan origins. For him, Pliny’s three Rhodians were the copyists, working on their marble version during the reign of Tiberius, at the same time as they were decorating the Sperlonga cave (now confidently identified as the site of the ill-fated dinner party), as an imperial commission, with sculptural themes ‘pertinent to Tiberius’ life story’.

Neither Brilliant nor Settis has much truck with any of this (it is perhaps double-edged when Brilliant calls Andreae ‘the Winckelmann of the twentieth century’). And neither believes that searching for ‘originals’ and ‘copies’, in any simple sense, is a particularly useful procedure in the complex artistic world of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, Settis plunges in again and argues directly against Andreae. A good proportion of his own text consists in an attempt to prove that our ‘Laocoon’ is an ‘original’ work of the late first century BC. Brilliant once more stays aloof, offering no preferred date of his own. In many ways this is the single most striking achievement of My Laocoön: to show the reader, by example, that fixing the date of a Roman sculpture is not the most important, or even a necessary, art-historical question.

There remains in the end, however, a sense that both Brilliant and Settis have pulled punches they might have delivered. Their shared commitment to the history of responses to ‘Laocoon’ leads them to take seriously a number of positions (Andreae’s included) which in other contexts would have deserved polite ridicule. The truth is that a good proportion of recent writing on this sculpture should be pilloried as much as it is analysed. If anyone wishes to see the force of a clever satire on these contributions, they should consult an article in the periodical Antike Welt, where Tonio Hölscher returns to the ‘Laocoon’, with a whole series of political readings that outstrip even Andreae (Suppose we see ‘Laocoon’ and his sons standing for Augustus, with his failed heirs Gaius and Lucius? Is the elder boy in the statue (Gaius?) an older version of the Cupid that crawls up Augustus’ leg in the Prima Porta statue? And so on.) Attentive readers, however, will not have worried. Alerted by the flagrantly ‘old’ restoration of ‘Laocoon’ that illustrates the article, they will soon have spotted that the first letter of each paragraph forms an entirely appropriate acrostic (in German): ‘Praise be to nonsense.’

Review of D’après l’Antique: Paris, musée du Louvre, 16 octobre 2000–15 janvier 2001 (Réunion de musées nationaux, 2000); Richard Brilliant, My Laocoön: Alternative claims in the interpretation of artworks (University of California Press, 2000); Salvatore Settis, Laocoonte, Fama e stile (Donzelli, 1999)

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