Thursday, April 07, 2005

Is the Laocoon a fake?

Since its discovery in a vineyard near Rome in 1506 the marble Laocoon group has ranked as one of the great touchstones of ancient sculpture. Authenticated at the site by none other than Michelangelo Buonarroti, the monument was immediately acquired by Pope Julius II, who installed it in the Cortile del Belvedere of the Vatican, where it has been ever since.

In this prominent place the Laocoon group has compelled admiration as the perfect union of form and content. Diffused through prints, the group’s image has been visually quoted and satirized in countless guises. Oddly, the date assigned by scholars has oscillated between ca. 250 BCE, which would make it a work of the Hellenistic baroque, and some 300 years later, so that it would be a product of the Roman classical revival. The difference is not as great an anomaly as it seems, since under the Roman Empire gifted sculptors were able to produce remarkable copies or pastiches of Greek works.

So far, though, no one has suggested that the Laocoon might have originated much later, and that it might have been a Renaissance forgery. This evening (April 6, 2005), before a packed house in Columbia University’s Casa Italiana, Dr. Lynn Catterson did just that. A Renaissance scholar, the speaker attributed the famous group to the hand of Michelangelo. If Catterson is right, the work must be subtracted from the roster of great works of antiquity and added to the canon of perhaps even greater works created by Michelangelo

What are the reasons for this extraordinary proposal?

First, in his youth Michelangelo is known to have made several fakes of ancient sculpture. While most believe that these forgeries have all been detected, the history of fakes suggests a different lesson, to wit, that to date not all fakes have been detected. Some, it is alleged, still lurk in the collections of major museums. If the work is a fake, it is better to discover this fact later (namely now), rather than never.

During the period 1498-51 Michelangelo ordered much more marble than he needed, even considering the work on the big Pietà of 1498. What became of this marble?

In addition Dr. Catterson made a number of comparisons with drawings attributed to Michelangelo. However, since some of these are doubtful, possibly even forgeries, we have the irony of the obscure clarified by the yet more obscure.

Some objections spring immediately to mind. How was Michelangelo able to conceal this major endeavor from his contemporaries? How was the work transported to its find site in the vineyard? Why is it that for the last 499 years no one has ever suspected the authenticity of such a prominent monument?

Finally, there is a problem of a more subjective sort. The Laocoon group just doesn’t seem to fit into the accepted roster of Michelangelo’s early works. For one thing, the marble group shows a contrast between the beefy central nude and the two lissome sons on either side. It almost seems as if two incompatible sculptural concepts of the human body have been collaged together. Scholars, who note that one of the remarkable features of the work is that through sheer forcefulness it somehow makes us overlook the problem, have not overlooked this discrepancy. Yet Michelangelo would not do this. Whenever presented with an assignment to combine several figures into one work, he adjusted them all to his heroic, almost overwhelming archetype of the human figure. Even in the early stages of his work, he would not have tolerated the presence of the two "sissy" boys in the presence of a massive central figure (which would have been to his liking). The anomaly is easily explained, however, if we accept the traditional view that three sculptors collaborated to create it in antiquity.

Perhaps those of us who have brought up to think that Michelangelo is Michelangelo and, despite its influence on him, ancient sculpture is ancient sculpture, simply have difficulty changing our minds. We have been "brainwashed" for too many years into accepting the Laocoon group as one of the major landmarks of ancient sculpture.

At this stage, though, Dr. Catterson’s intriguing thesis remains only hypothetical. Possibly, arguments will surface to settle the matter one way or the other. Or perhaps, as with other contested works, such as the Getty kouros, it must linger in a kind of twilight of uncertainty.

I am far from embracing the postmodern view that such uncertainty is a good thing—perhaps even in many cases inevitable. Still, it must be acknowledged that, as with all historical issues, we know less about art history than we would like to think we do. Perhaps we must acknowledge that here at least our "certain knowledge" is not certain.


Blogger Tamara Fultz said...

I think Richard Brilliant was right on the mark with his criticism of the statue as cited in today's New York Times article: "She made absolutely no reference to ancient sculptures that could be related to the 'Laocoon,' including a large body of ancient fragments found just before WWII at Sperlonga ..." I wrote a paper last year on how the 'Laocoon' influenced such artists as Michelangelo during the Renaissance and I think it's clear that the "Laocoon" was done by or closely related to the work of the Sperlonga artists. You need only look at the head and hair of 'Laocoon' and the head and hair of the Odysseus statue from Sperlonga to see the relationship between the two.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Tamara Fultz said...

I meant: ... his criticism of Catterson's theory on the statue as cited in ...

9:59 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm feeling the lighter one. It brings out the brightness of the tile.

michelangelo marble

4:14 AM  

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