Sculpture, just like any other ancient work of art intrigues people to date. The special and moving expertise and creativity that characterize artistic sculptures of different eras remain a point of debate as many researchers and scholars venture into the field each trying to study and understand these pieces of work.
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Among the most prominent eras of sculpture that has attracted much attention is the Italian Renaissance with the Laocoon and his sons sculpture being a point of interest.
This paper provides a research on the artistic works of this period with the aim of constructing a reasoning concerning the artists of this period, the reasons for engaging in these activities.
The paper analyzes the characteristic features of some artistic sculptures from this period as the inference for drawing conclusions. Among these, the primary study will be on the Laocoon and his sons sculpture by Baccio Bandinelli.
Laocoon and his sons
Laocoon and his sons, is a sculpture created by Baccio Bandinelli between 1520-1525, yet the exact date is a mystery. It stands up in display at the Museo Pio Clementino in Vatican.1
The level of detail of this sculpture represents the hard work and the efforts Bandinelli put into that piece of work to present a perfect present of the king of France Francis I as directed by Cardinal Bernardo Divizio.2 The piece of work involved a first step in wax modeling, followed by a cartoon study and later on, the sculpture in marble.
This sculpture is not just an artistic articulation that has no underlying subject matter. This sculpture tells the story of Trojan priest Laocoon and his two sons (Thymbraeus and Antiphaters) while they are struggling to free themselves from the grip of the sea serpents sent against them by Neptune, the god that protected the Greeks.
The story tells how Laocoon had forewarned the Trojans about the mysterious horse found outside the walls and thus brought upon himself and his two sons the wrath of Neptune.3This therefore points out to the fact that this work is not only an artistic entity but also expresses spiritual autonomy.
Other renaissance sculptures
In this paper, it is important to include other Italian Renaissance sculptures, which will help in creating a concrete picture of the characteristic features of the period and will be useful for the purpose of comparison. One of the sculptures from this period is Bacchus.
The artistic sculpture, which was sculpture between 1496 and 1497 by Michelangelo, lay in display in Bargello Museum, Florence. This sculpture just like many others has a story to tell..4
In this statute, the sculptor painted the god as obsessed with wine. This statute, however, did not gain the approval of Michelangelo’s patronage but on the contrary, it was considered distasteful. For this very reason, this piece of work did not achieve fame as an outstanding artistic work.
Another example of a renaissance sculpture that will be useful for this study is the Pieta by Michelangelo. As opposed to the Bacchus, this is a sculpture of a god with too many human emotions.
This particular sculpture shows a young mother holding a lifeless child in her arms. Furthermore, unlike the Bacchus, this piece of work has achieved fame and it was the only Michelangelo’s work that was ever signed.5These three pieces of work will be a point of reference in this paper in examining the characteristics of the renaissance sculpture and comparing it with other periods.
The Laocoon and his sons is a 123cm statute made of white marble with seven interlocking parts of marble. This sculpture shows Laocoon with a wrinkled face curved out of the marble and the eyes of the sculpture appear to be half shut creating the impression of struggle and pain.6
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The artist articulates with detail the struggle that the priest has while trying to free himself from the snakes with a detail of the exposure of veins in his left hand. Another physical representation of the struggle is the raising chest of Laocoon as he tries to prevent the head of the snake from biting his hip. The deadly serpent has bit the younger son of Laocoon and he appears to be passing out.
Another stunning appearance of the sculpture is how Laocoon has his head cocked to one side with his eyes looking upward. The two sons of Laocoon appear to have their heads raised and looking up to their father in pain and desperation as the older tries to free himself from the entanglement.
The highly ornamented nature of the statute, for instance, the appearance of the body parts twisting in different directions allow the audience to make deductions for meaning.7 For instance, the arrangement of limbs in this sculpture can show the confusion and desperation as the mind of the priest tries to coordinate all his limbs to free himself from the poisonous snake.
Another outstanding visual attraction of this sculpture is the level of realism the artist employs. First, the size of the statute brings up the actual size of an average person. This makes it easier for the audience to identify with the statute as a representation of an actual happening.
Another very important point to note in this statute is the combination of expressions, motions and physical appearance as curved out by artist. This harmonious combination brings out the statutes reality without creating mixed emotions or interpretations.
On a different note, the sculptor choice of color adds an anesthetic value to the sculpture without necessarily demeaning the theme of the work.8 The evidence to this is the fact that Bandinelli chooses white color for the priest, his sons and the snakes to represent their religious positions for the priest and son and a divine position for the snakes.
Another aspect of the physical appearance that cannot escape notice is a stylistic combination of proportions and emotions. In this statute, the size of the two sons is significantly smaller than that of Laocoon. In this sculpture, as the smaller son of Laocoon collapses, his head lifted with his eyes looking at the father.
The other son goes about the struggle but again he still lifts up his face towards the father. This creates an impression of responsibility the Laocoon had over the cause. It brings out the pain of the two sons suffering because of their father’s mistake. A combination of all the visual aspects of the sculpture explains why this artistic work remained an inspiration for many artists in the renaissance era and today.
The Laocoon sculpture is of a great importance and stands out as influential in history of art. In its time, it influenced art in Italy creating a great impression and impact on the Italian Renaissance art. Michelangelo is one of the people who could not forget the importance and impact of the sculpture. Michelangelo explores this interest in his consequent works the dying slave and the rebellious slave9.
The Laocoon sculpture comes out as one of the highly preferred and outstanding outputs of the art of painting and sculpture. The piece of work enjoys massive support that it was a sculpture of all times.
This particular work by Bandinelli stands out as exclusive. At the retrieval of original statute, records show that one of the arms, the right arm of Laocoon was missing. According to Bandinelli, the arm protruded upwards something that the consequent artists, like Sansovino, later concurred.10
However, some other artists were of a different opinion. For instance, according to Michelangelo, the arm did not have this characteristic but instead he believed the arm appeared bent.
This is one of the major aspects, on which the rivalry between Bandinelli and Michelangelo was rooted. Later on, the rivalry on the arm favored Bandinelli opinion, which gained acceptance across Europe, thus marking the beginning of his rise to prominence.
Chief among the reasons for support was the fact that Bandinelli casted wax for arm of the original sculpture. After this, he also received a request from Guilio to make the Cardinal’s sculpture.
This showed that Bandinelli’s work was better that Michelangelo’s. One of the most astonishing facts is that Michelangelo was present when the Laocoon sculpture was unearthed in Rome.11This means that he knew much about the sculpture but his recognition would not match that of Bandinelli’s, who unlike him was not present.
The classical Laocoon inspired Michelangelo in his consequent sculptures, well shown by the “Christ in the last judgment” sculpture. Later, Michelangelo’s argument received acceptance with the first bent arm discovered in Rome. Come 1950s this had spread all over with a turn of events, which saw Michelangelo, receive much recognition.
Despite all these strengths and the influence this particular artistic work has brought to the history of sculpturing, it is not without shortcomings. First, consider the nudity of Laocoon and sons.
The turning and the twisting show exaggerated emotions, which make it hard to understand the drama in the drama. Many sculptures originate from texts i.e. written materials.12 In the case of the Laocoon and sons, the sculpture uses a complicated art where several aspects need further explanation.
A good example is the choice of nudity over clothing raises more questions than answers for the interpreters and thus makes it hard to interpret the work.
Other aspects of the sculpture also requires support from texts, as they cannot be deducted from the sculpture. For instance, the coming out of snakes from the sea is a contextual part of the sculpture’s story, which is not evident in the sculpture.
The age of Laocoon’s sons is another important aspect Bandinelli used in this sculpture, yet with possible conflicting evidence.
Given that the young men stand for innocence, and the serpents, as portrayed, are too cruel to attack the innocent ones, consider the sculpture in this manner; the two sons are of medium age as their size depicts, however, their physique seems to be of grown up men.13
However, if artist matched their physique with their size, the message of the match would be lost. On the other hand, if their sizes matched their physique, also the match would be lost. Moreover, presenting the younger sons as babies would result into loss of the aspect of physique, thus loosing also the match of the sculpture and the message.
Although the work by Bandinelli is more conventional, this fact does not render its worthless. The sculpture has many lessons people can learn up to date. They are more useful to art students who in their capacities would want to refer, compare, and learn.
One of the most important aspects of art is the fact that they are not just works that bare no meanings. On the contrary, artistic work plays an important role in the society.
This requires that the information contained in these artistic works can be interpreted. In this aspect, sculpturing in the Italian renaissance era was not an undertaking for mare entertainment or beauty but incorporated important information, which reflected the values, culture and beliefs of people.
One of the most outstanding functions of sculpturing is reflection on the religion. The Laocoon sculpture heavily represents the religion of the ancient Greece by incorporating their gods in the story.
Laocoon, the center of the sculpture, is a priest Trojan priest of Neptune.14 This aspect brings out the religious practice of the Greek at the time of this sculpture.
The aspect of religion is not only prevalent in this piece of work alone but other sculptures like the Bacchus (Roman God of Wine); bare the same reflections in the background. These two sculptures depict intense reference to mythological beliefs of the societies in which they existed. This therefore brings out the spiritual aspect of the society.
Another function of sculpturing that cannot escape our knowledge is that of passing on moral lessons. In the Laocoon and his sons, the punishment of the Laocoon priest who disobeyed the god was his death and that of his two sons.
This work was not to intrigue any feelings of piety but rather to depict the deserved punishment of the deviant priest.15The interpretation of the Pieta by Michelangelo sculpture is moral in nature as it depicts the moral duties of children to their parent. Accordingly, this kind of interpretation stands out in implying the moral obligations of man to the gods.
Finally, sculpturing is an important aspect of retaining the cultural heritage of a group of people. These sculptures, besides their interpretations as discussed above, play an important role in preserving history. Furthermore, they are useful for reference purposes for generations, which come after them both for religious, anesthetic and even artistic purposes.
As it can be seen above, the Laocoon and his sons sculpture is not just like any other piece of work but on the contrary is unique and influential. From the discussion, it is evident that the sculptures change the history.
Its retrieval from Rome triggered a rebirth in the Italian renaissance history of sculpture and in addition to this; it triggered historical events, which remain important in the world history.
Again, despite the centuries that this sculpture has lived over, it remains a source of inspiration to many students and artists. It is doubtless that this is both a historical piece of art and a conventional source of inspiration.
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Goffen, Rona. Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
Haskell, Francis, and Nicholas Penny. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900. London: Yale University Press, 1981.
Hibbard, Howard. Michelangelo. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Jameson, Anna. Legends of the Madonna: as represented in the fine arts. London: Longmans, Green, 1891, 2006.
Janson Horst, “Titian’s Laocoon Caricature and the Vesalian-Galenist Controversy.” The Art Bulletin. Vol. 28, No. 1 (1946).
Pollitt, John. The Art of Ancient Greece: Sources and Documents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Seymour Howard. “Laocoon Re-restored.” American Journal of Archaeology. London: Oxford University, 93.3 (1989).
Stewart, Andrew. “Hagesander, Athanodorus and Polydorus.” in Simon Hornblower, Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.1996.
Richard, Brilliant. My Laocoön – alternative claims in the interpretation of artworks. CA: University of California Press, 2000.
Wallace, William. Michelangelo: the Artist, the Man, and his Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
1 Leonard Barkan. Unearthing the past: archaeology and aesthetics in the making of renaissance culture. (New York: Yale University Press, 2001), 68.
2 Rona Goffen. Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 122.
3 John Pollitt. The Art of Ancient Greece: Sources and Documents. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 49
4 Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900 (Yale University Press, 1981), 243.
5 Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900 (Yale University Press, 1981), 237.
6 Seymour Howard. “Laocoon Re-restored”, American Journal of Archaeology 93.3 (Oxford University Press, 1989), 422.
7 Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900 (Yale University Press, 1981), 233.
8 Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900 (Yale University Press, 1981), 233.
9 Horst Janson, “Titian’s Laocoon Caricature and the Vesalian-Galenist Controversy”, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 28, (New York: H. A. Abrams 1946), 49
10 Richard Brilliant. My Laocoön – alternative claims in the interpretation of artworks, (University of California Press, 2000), 29.
11 William Wallace. Michelangelo; the Artist, the Man, and his Times. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 16.
12 Anna Jameson. Legends of the Madonna: as represented in the fine arts (London: Longmans, Green, 1891), 37.
13 Howard Hibbard. Michelangelo. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 56.
14 Andrew Stewart. “Hagesander, Athanodorus and Polydorus”, in Hornblower, Simon, Oxford Classical Dictionary, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 568
15 Richard Brilliant. My Laocoön – alternative claims in the interpretation of artworks, (University of California Press, 2000), 34