Michelangelo Entered a Competition to Put a Missing Arm Back on Laocoön and His Sons — and Lost

Not many ancient stat­ues are as well-known as Lao­coön and His Sons. Mas­ter­ful­ly sculpt­ed some time between the first cen­tu­ry BC and the first cen­tu­ry AD, it depicts the epony­mous Tro­jan priest in an ago­niz­ing strug­gle with the ser­pents that will kill one or both of his sons. The details of the tale vary depend­ing on the teller: Vir­gil describes Lao­coön as a priest of Posei­don who dared to attempt expos­ing the famous Tro­jan Horse ruse, and Sopho­cles describes him as a priest of Apol­lo who vio­lat­ed his vow of celiba­cy. Whichev­er ver­sion of the sto­ry he heard, the sculp­tor clear­ly drew from it pow­er­ful enough inspi­ra­tion to impress Pliny the Elder, in whose Nat­ur­al His­to­ry the piece fig­ures.

Even among the more artis­ti­cal­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed behold­ers of the Renais­sance, Lao­coön and His Sons proved a cap­ti­vat­ing piece of work. Unearthed from a Roman vine­yard in 1506, it looked to have weath­ered the inter­ven­ing mil­len­ni­um and half with much less wear and tear than most large arti­facts from antiq­ui­ty — though Lao­coön him­self was, con­spic­u­ous­ly, miss­ing an arm. Com­mis­sioned by Pope Julius II, Vat­i­can archi­tect Dona­to Bra­mante “held a con­test to see who could come up with the best ver­sion of the arm restora­tion,” writes Kaushik Pato­wary at Amus­ing Plan­et. “Michelan­ge­lo sug­gest­ed that Laocoön’s miss­ing arm should be bent back as if the Tro­jan priest was try­ing to rip the ser­pent off his back.”

Michelan­ge­lo was­n’t the only Renais­sance man in com­pe­ti­tion: “Raphael, who was a dis­tant rel­a­tive of Bra­mante, favored an extend­ed arm. In the end, Jacopo Sanso­vi­no was declared the win­ner, whose ver­sion with an out­stretched arm aligned with Raphael’s own vision of how the stat­ue should look.” Lao­coön was thus even­tu­al­ly restored with his arm out­streched, and kept that way until, “in a strange twist of fate, an antique back­ward-bent arm was dis­cov­ered in a Roman work­shop in 1906, a few hun­dred meters from where the stat­ue group had been found four hun­dred years ear­li­er.” Posi­tioned just as Michelan­ge­lo had sug­gest­ed, this dis­em­bod­ied mar­ble limb turned out unmis­tak­ably to have come from Lao­coön and His Sons — but about three and a half cen­turies too late, alas, for Michelan­ge­lo to lord it over Raphael.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Michelangelo’s David: The Fas­ci­nat­ing Sto­ry Behind the Renais­sance Mar­ble Cre­ation

New Video Shows What May Be Michelangelo’s Lost & Now Found Bronze Sculp­tures

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 or on Face­book.

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