A Creepy 19th Century Re-Creation of the Famous Ancient Roman Statue, Laocoön and His Sons

Beware of Greeks bear­ing gifts. We’ve all heard that proverb, but few of us could name its source: the Tro­jan priest Lao­coön, a his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter in the Aeneid. “Do not trust the Horse, Tro­jans,” Vir­gil has him say. “What­ev­er it is, I fear the Greeks even bear­ing gifts.” He was right to do so, as we all know, though his death came not at the hands of the Greek army let into Troy by the sol­diers hid­den inside the Horse, but those of the gods. As Vir­gil has it, an enraged Lao­coön threw a spear at the Horse when his com­pa­tri­ots dis­re­gard­ed words of cau­tion, and in response the god­dess Min­er­va sent forth a cou­ple of sea ser­pents to do him in.

The Aeneid, of course, offers only one account of Lao­coön’s fate. Sopho­cles, for instance, had him spared and only his sons killed, and his osten­si­ble crime — being a priest yet mar­ry­ing — had noth­ing to do with the Tro­jan Horse. But what­ev­er drew the ser­pents Lao­coön’s way, the moment they set upon him and his sons was immor­tal­ized by Rho­di­an sculp­tors Age­sander, Athen­odor­os, and Poly­dorus in Lao­coön and His Sons, among the most famous ancient sculp­tures in exis­tence since its exca­va­tion in 1506. (The sculp­ture was orig­i­nal­ly cre­at­ed some­where between 200 BC and 70 AD.) Var­i­ous trib­utes have been paid to it over the cen­turies, most notably by an Aus­tri­an anatomist named Josef Hyrtl, whose built his high­ly Hal­loween-suit­able recre­ation out of skele­tons — both human and snake.

“Accord­ing to Christo­pher Polt, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the clas­si­cal stud­ies depart­ment at Boston Col­lege who tweet­ed a side-by-side com­par­i­son of the two ver­sions, Hyrtl cre­at­ed his take on the sculp­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na around 1850,” writes Hyper­al­ler­gic’s Valenti­na Di Lis­cia. In response, a his­to­ri­an named Gre­go­ry Stringer tweet­ed that Hyrtl must have been able to intu­it the “prop­er pose” of Lao­coön’s right arm, since in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry the sculp­ture’s orig­i­nal arm was still miss­ing, yet to be redis­cov­ered and reat­tached, and since 1510 had been replaced in copies with an incor­rect­ly out­stretched sub­sti­tute. Lao­coön and His Sons now resides at the Vat­i­can (learn more about it in the Smarthis­to­ry video below), but Hyrtl’s skele­tal Lao­coön and His Sons was destroyed in the 1945 Allied bomb­ing of Vien­na.

In 2018, a sim­i­lar project was attempt­ed again for an exhib­it at the Hous­ton Muse­um of Nat­ur­al Sci­ence. The new all-skele­ton ver­sion of Lao­coön and His Sons was cre­at­ed, as the Hous­ton Press’ Jef Rouner reports, by taxi­der­mist Lawyer Dou­glas, taxi­dermy col­lec­tor Tyler Zottarelle, and artist Joshua Ham­mond. “It looks a lot like inter­pre­ta­tive dance,” Rouner quotes Dou­glas as say­ing of Hyrtl’s work. “It’s a beau­ti­ful piece, but I was con­cerned it wasn’t able to cap­ture the orig­i­nal strug­gle of ani­mal ver­sus human.” Though Age­sander, Athen­odor­os, and Poly­dorus’ orig­i­nal is known as a “pro­to­typ­i­cal icon of human agony,” it turns out that “get­ting per­pet­u­al­ly grin­ning skulls to seem in agony is hard­er than you might think.” But if any time of the year is right for grin­ning skulls to express the human expe­ri­ence, sure­ly this is it.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Art & Art His­to­ry Cours­es

19th-Cen­tu­ry Skele­ton Alarm Clock Remind­ed Peo­ple Dai­ly of the Short­ness of Life: An Intro­duc­tion to the Memen­to Mori

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals Their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

An Artist Cro­chets a Life-Size, Anatom­i­cal­ly-Cor­rect Skele­ton, Com­plete with Organs

Cel­e­brate The Day of the Dead with The Clas­sic Skele­ton Art of José Guadalupe Posa­da

3D Scans of 7,500 Famous Sculp­tures, Stat­ues & Art­works: Down­load & 3D Print Rodin’s Thinker, Michelangelo’s David & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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