As related by Virgil, the priest Laocoön dared to protest against drawing the wooden horse into the city of Troy, uttering the famous words ‘whatever it is, even when Greeks bring gifts I fear them, gifts and all’ (Virgil, The Aeneid, Book II, 59-70) which ultimately condemned his family to be crushed to death by serpents by order of the gods. Laocoön was installed in the Belvedere Courtyard of the Musei Vaticani and was later identified by the Pontiff's architect to be the group referred to by Pliny at the Palace of Titus and now attributed to Agessandro of Rhodes and his sons Polidoro and Athenodorus in the first century BC. Since the rediscovery of the original marble, Laocoön has been considered the greatest example of tragic emotion in art, and immediately became one of the main sources of inspiration for Mannerist and Baroque artists and sculptors.
At the time of excavation, Laocoön lacked his right arm, and both his sons lacked their right hands. Though the sons' hands seem to have been restored in marble by 1523, some speculation still remained regarding the intended position of Laocoön 's right arm. A terracotta arm extended upwards fixed to the group in the 1530s was said to be modelled by Michelangelo's protégé Montorsoli. However, a copy of the Laocoön by Bartolommeo (Baccio) Bandinelli (d. 1560) in 1525, later confirmed by the antique cameos circulating in the 18th century, depicts a bent arm. In 1800, still unsettled with regard to the arm's position, all restorations, including those of the sons, were detached when the group was removed to Paris to be displayed in the Musée Central des Arts, now the Louvre, at its inauguration. Upon its return to the Vatican Museum in 1816, the sons' arms and a new stucco arm, again extending upwards, were attached. In 1942, this stucco arm was removed and a bent arm, battered and without a hand, was affixed instead. A cast of the group as it was before the final restorations was installed in an adjacent niche of the Belvedere Courtyard where it remains today.
So popular was the model, that the group has been cast and copied in a range of materials. The present lot is a remarkable posthumous cast in an edition of nine made by the prolific Chiurazzi foundry, established by the engraver Gennaro Chiurazzi in 1870. The Fonderia Chiurazzi expanded rapidly, due in part to the high demand for copies of the ancient statues from Pompeii and Herculaneum, now the National Museum, Naples. Widely known as a leading source for these reproductions, the Fonderia Chiurazzi, had a long history of providing works for important collectors including John Wanamaker, who purchased four hundred of Chiurazzi's bronze reproductions for the University of Pennsylvania Museum in 1904, John Ringling, who ordered several million lire worth of sculpture in 1925, which are now displayed at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, and most recently, J. Paul Getty. In the early 1970's, Getty commissioned a large group of works from Chiurazzi for his museum of antiquities in Malibu, California. Opened in 1974, the Getty Villa is based on the Villa dei Papiri and the Chiurazzi reproductions of the six Peplophoroi, the Drunken Satyr and the Seated Hermes set in the courtyard. Another example of this monumental group is currently in by The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida (Bequest of John Ringling, 1936, SN5084). A lifetime cast of the present lot of the same scale was sold at Christie’s, New York, 20 April 2006, lot 212 ($262,400).