On the 14th of January, 1506, a group of ancient statues was accidentally discovered by a farmer digging in his vineyard on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, among which was the celebrated Laocoön.
The rediscovery of the Laocoön in 1506 had a profound impact on Italian Renaissance art. Sangallo recounts that the sculptural group was instantly recognizable due to Pliny the Elder's glowing description of it in his first-century Natural History, which at the time was considered the most important and trusted account of the lost artistic treasures of ancient Rome. According to Pliny, the Laocoön was "a work superior to any painting and any bronze" [Natural History 36.37]. The sculpture was all the more praiseworthy, he continues, because it was the result of a collaboration between three sculptors--Hagesandros, Polydorus, and Athenodorus of Rhodes--and was carved out of a single block of marble. To Michelangelo and his fellow artists, its reemergence must have been understood as divine providence: precisely at a time when they were striving to equal or even surpass the great achievements of their ancient predecessors, a fabled masterpiece literally reappeared out of the ground before their eyes. Immediately upon its discovery, Michelangelo and his companions began to draw the statue and converse about its relationship not only to other wonders of Antiquity, but also to the great works of their own day. Soon after the Laocoön resurfaced, Pope Julius purchased it and had it transferred to the Cortile Belvedere. The boldly-carved statue (fig. 1), with its emotionally-charged figures in contorted, twisting poses, proved a powerful source of inspiration not only for Michelangelo, but also for his great contemporaries Raphael and Titian. It would also profoundly influence key Mannerist artists of succeeding generations, including Giorgio Vasari, Giambologna, and Alessandro Allori, the pupil and adoptive son of Agnolo Bronzino.
The most famous account of the tragic death of the high priest Laocoön and his sons was Virgil's Aeneid. The ancient Roman poet describes how during the Trojan war the mainland Greeks, having feigned retreat, hid inside a great wooden horse they had left on the battlefield. Suspecting treachery, Laocoön warned his fellow Trojans. Shortly thereafter, while Laocoön was preparing to sacrifice a bull according to his priestly duties, the gods sent two enormous serpents from the sea to attack him and his sons. The Trojan's interpreted Laocoön's horrific death as a sign of the divine disapproval of their refusal of the Greek's gift, and so they brought the wooden horse into their city, leading to its sack.
In the present painting, Laocoön and his sons struggle violently against the two serpents in precisely the same poses in which they appear in the ancient statue, which Allori almost certainly would have encountered on his first visit to Rome in 1554-1556. Allori has even replicated the figures' draperies down to the cloth that falls from the son's shoulder to the floor on the right--a detail that in the sculpture is required to support the weight of the marble, but here serves no apparent function. Notably, the painter situates the scene of Laocoön's death inside a simple courtyard with a classically-inspired archway opening onto a landscape. This architectural setting is more reminiscent of Bramante's Cortile Belvedere than the river bank outside the city of Troy described by Virgil. Allori's reference to the Laocoön's modern installation in the Vatican, together with the conspicuous inclusion of the ancient statue's stepped pedestal below his figures, signals his true intention for this painting. The artist assumes the role of a modern Pygmalion, surpassing mere earthly powers of representation by bringing the sculpture to life, not by the magic of the gods, but rather, by the power of his brush. In this manner, Allori evokes the Paragone, the philosophical debate over the relative merits of painting versus sculpture. The painter enhances the cold, white marble sculpture with colors taken from nature. The warm flesh-tones of Laocoön and his sons and the cool greens and yellows of the snakes' tactily immediate scales find no parallel in the art of sculpture as it was understood in the Renaissance. Likewise Allori's landscape - conceived according to the principles of atmospheric perspective with orange and pink tones gradually fading into light blues - creates an illusion of distance that the plastic arts cannot achieve. By "improving" upon the original statue in these ways, Allori makes a compelling case for painting's mimetic superiority over its sister art.
As Larry Feinberg recently observed, the Laocoön's struggling figures would find their way into several of Allori's other works (loc. cit.). For instance, the painter drew inspiration from the sculpture for his crucified thieves in his Deposition in the Prado (c. 1570-1575) and the figure in the upper right of his Deposition in the church of Santa Croce, Florence (finished in 1571). Feinberg dates the present painting to the same period in which Allori created these two paintings, that is, around the time he was working on the paintings for Francesco de Medici's studiolo in Florence. In these years, the painter was moving away from the style of Bronzino and embracing a more Michelangelesque aesthetic - in particular the twisting, energetic postures, powerful musculature, and intense emotion that Michelangelo had himself distilled from the Laocoön's example. Indeed, the figures of Allori's Laocoön are closely related to the hyper-muscular, contorted bodies found in his Pearl Gatherers and the Banquet of Cleopatra (both Palazzo Vecchio, Florence). The present painting compares even more closely to Allori's Abduction of Proserpine (Getty Museum, Los Angeles), in which the principal figures are likewise conceived as twisting, sculptural forms, swelling with energy. The latter work is signed and dated 1570, providing a strong reference point for the dating of the present painting (ibid.).
(fig. 1) Laocoön, prior to 20th century restoration, with extended arm (marble), Greek / Vatican Museums and Galleries, Vatican City / Alinari / The Bridgeman Art Library.