The present group depicting the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons being attacked by snakes at the temple of Neptune has been an iconic image since it was discovered in 1506 near Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. The story, from Book II of Virgil's Aeneid, tells how Laocoön was blinded and his sons were condemned to death by Minerva, who favoured the Greeks, for warning the citizens of Troy not to bring the wooden horse within the city walls. Another interpretation of the story, however, is that Apollo sent the snakes to punish the Seer for sleeping with his wife in his temple in the presence of the deity's image.
Since its discovery, the tragic pathos of the group has been the subject of extensive intellectual discourse and artistic reproduction. Numerous artists interpreted it with slight variations; both Baccio Bandinelli and Jacopo Sansovino cast bronze versions in the 16th century, as did Francois Girardon in the 17th and Massimiliano Soldani Benzi and Foggini in the 18th - to name a few. The large number of restoration attempts over time also accounts for variations among the bronzes such as the angles of limbs, the protagonist wearing a laurel wreath and a naturalistic or simply rectangular base. This latter point is of particular interest, since a number of models vary from the original marble, which is set on a rectangular stepped base alone. Drawings and prints including one by Hendrik van Schoel ((active 1595-1622), see Brummer, loc. cit.) depict the group as it was at the time of discovery - in a yard surrounded by foliage and weeds. This is without doubt the origin, as in the present lot, of the naturalistic base seen in Foggini's and Girardon's versions - all three versions of which also depict Laocoön wearing a laurel wreath.