Cast of the Laokoon groupOn display
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Perhaps the single best known sculpture from antiquity, the so-called Laocoön group, was found in Rome in 1506 and placed on public display in the Vatican, where it remains. This cast was made from the marble original and acquired by the Ashmolean from the British Museum in 1933.
The Roman writer Pliny (active in the AD 70s) ascribed the group to the sculptors Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Ploydoros, who worked in the later first century BC. Although it is debated to what extent it can be regarded as a Hellenistic or Roman sculpture, the Vatican Laocoön is probably a version of a bronze original.
Laocoön, a Trojan priest of Apollo, and his sons struggle with two flesh-eating snakes, sent as a divine punishment. The priest had warned the Trojans against accepting the wooden horse sent by the Greeks and incurred the anger of Poseidon (some say Athena) who was supporting the Greeks. The saying ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ comes from lines spoken by the priest in Virgil’s poem The Aeneid.
While struggling against the snakes, Laocoön supports himself against the altar on which he had been making a sacrifice. His head is turned back with a grimace of pain which is combined with the horror at the death of his sons, the exertion of his struggle and the awareness of his own imminent death.
The Laocoön group is one of the most discussed and famous pieces of Hellenistic sculpture, described by Michaelangelo as a ‘miracle of art’.
Cast of the Laokoon group
Date1st half of the 20th century
Material and technique
Dimensions238 x 165 cm estimated (height x width)
No. of items
Museum locationGround floor | Gallery 14 | Cast Gallery
Vatican, Museo Pio Clementino, Cortile Belvedere, inv. 1059, 1064, 1067.
Found in 1506 at the ‘Sette Sale’ on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, Italy.
Laokoon naked with full beard and long hair sits on a square altar partly covered by his mantle, trying to free himself from two snakes. On either side is a naked boy (Laocoon’s sons) with short hair likewise engaged. Late Hellenistic, by the Rhodian sculptors Hagesandros, Polydoros and Athenodoros.
In: Frederiksen, Rune, and R.R.R. Smith, The Cast Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum: Catalogue of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2011)
Frederiksen, Rune, and R.R.R. Smith, The Cast Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum: Catalogue of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2011)
Katherine Wodehouse (general editor), The Ashmolean Museum Crossing Cultures Crossing Time (Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, 2014), p.68, illus. p.69