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Laocoön and his sons

Laocoön and his sons is a marble sculpture that depicts a Trojan priest and his sons being strangled by serpents sent by a Greek goddess. It was unearthed in the 16th century and was thought to be from the Classical period, but later evidence suggested it was from the Hellenistic period. The sculpture is admired for its dynamic, expressive style. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy) Male: We're standing in an alcove of a lovely courtyard in the Vatican and we're looking at Laocoon. This man, Laocoon was a Trojan priest and he knew that the gift that had arrived outside of the gates of the City of Troy from the Greeks, their enemies, was in fact a trick and he tried to warn the city. Female: The gift was a wooden horse filled with Greek soldiers. Male: A [goddess] who was a protector of the Greeks didn't like this, and to punish him, sent serpents to strangle him and his sons. So it's interesting, when this sculpture was unearthed in the 16th century, it was immediately hailed because we thought it linked up with literature that we have from the ancient world, from ancient Rome, from Pliny. Female: Pliny, the ancient Roman historian wrote that he had seen a sculpture of this subject in the Emperor's palace. Male: Into the 18th century, an important early connoisseur or historian, a man named Winklemann was absolutely convinced that this dated from the 4th century B.C.E. Female: From the Classical period. Male: That's right. It lived up to every desire that antiquarians had for a sculpture that could really be located. Female: So then the problems emerge. One problem is that the sculptors that Pliny names can be traced to the first 1st century, not to an earlier period. Pliny also says that this was carved out of a single block of marble, which it isn't. Male: Then to further complicate things, we just need to look at the sculpture. This is a sculpture that is full of dynamism. His body is writhing, there's agony, those serpents are muscular. There's a power here and all of that energy we associate not with the Classical period in ancient Greece, but instead with the Hellenistic, that is with the 3rd or the 2nd century. Female: In fact, this is very similar in style to the figures that we see on the Altar of Pergamon in the way that the figures move into our space and interact with us. Male: Even the sense of agony, the sense of tragedy that is so dramatic, all the theatricality here, all the emphasis on the diagonal, on the serpentine, all of these things, we see on the great Altar of Zeus at Pergamon and really it fixes this style in the Hellenistic. Female: The word you used was "serpentine" and I think that that's a great word to think about the sculpture and the figures of the Renaissance that were inspired by it. The figure twists in space. His legs move to his left. His torso moves to his right. His head moves back toward the left. It's a figure that twists on itself and is so expressive in the body that you can see how it would be so important for Michelangelo. Male: As with so many ancient sculptures, especially complicated ones like this, it was found in fragments and although it is organized and the limbs are in the position we think they belong, we could be wrong. Especially concerning Laocoon's right arm. Female: This has been reconstructed a number of different ways, but the way that we have it now with his arm moving back behind him is the one that our historians agree on now. But one of the things that people have noticed about this sculpture is the terrible pain, agony expressed by the figures, but the simultaneous sense of beauty that we contemplate in the figure's body. Male: So that tension is a result of the fact that we're enjoying the beauty of this sculpture even as the sculpture is depicting great pain, great tragedy, real agony. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy)