Analyzing the theme, provenance, and history of the Vatican Laocoön, Richard Brilliant traces the interpretation of this masterpiece of Greco-Roman sculpture through the ages, showing how these interpretations have shaped its reception. The Vatican Laocoön has suffered the vicissitudes of changing tastes, differing agendas of incompatible interpretations, and relegation to the margins of aesthetic preference. Several Laocoöns are identified in this erudite and strikingly original study: the alleged, lost "Greek original" the extant marbles sculpted in the first century; the sixteenth-century restoration and its impact; the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century topos of critical judgment; the twentieth-century re-restored artifact of ancient art. Yet, the Vatican Laocoön contains all of them in its obdurate self, and My Laocoön treats their history as a means of demonstrating an artwork's power to transcend its critical reception.
Discovered in Rome in 1506, the Laocoön stimulated the imagination of sixteenth-century artists and humanists because of the sculpture’s expressive exploitation of the human body under stress. Variations in the critical reception of the Laocoön and disagreements about what the work represented, and how it did so, came to a climax when it became the victim of the controversy between Winckelmann and Lessing. Lessing’s anti-Laocoön Laocoön, certainly one of the seminal tracts of aesthetic criticism, eventually won out. Ironically, this victory coincided with Winckelmann’s invention of the history of ancient art, which differentiated between Greek and Roman artworks and bestowed upon the former a much higher aesthetic evaluation.
This value-laden historiographical development seriously affected the Laocoön’s reception, once scholars deemed it a "Roman" work, perhaps even a copy of a lost Greek original. The Laocoön was doubly damned: it was Roman, not Greek, and its ontological credentials had been compromised, often to such a degree that the marbles were rendered almost invisible in the search for the Greek precedents. Re-restoration of the Laocoön in 1960 intensified its emotive power, but by then artists and critics had become indifferent. Brilliant tells the Laocoön story with wit and erudition, and his selection of Laocoön illustrations masterfully demonstrates the influence that this work has exerted over the centuries.
Richard Brilliant is Professor of Art and Archaeology at Columbia University and the author of many books, including Visual Narratives: Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art (1984), Portraiture (1991), Commentaries on Roman Art (1994), and Facing the New World: Jewish Portraits in Colonial and Federal America (1997).
Praise for Richard Brilliant’s books:
"Visual Narratives: Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art is full of interesting insights and ideas, and the arguments are supported by impressive scholarship. Imaginative studies of this sort are still rare in classical art history." —Stephen L. Dyson, author of Community and Society in Roman Italy
"A densely packed, meticulously documented work by a distinguished historian whose expertise ranges from Roman imagery to Andy Warhol, Portraiture discusses portraiture not primarily as an art form but rather as a significant reflection of individual and group personality features." —American Library Association