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Laocoön and His Sons

Have you ever wondered what makes a statue great? What sets one piece of old marble apart from the hundreds of others you will see on your trip to Italy? You can find the answers to these questions and much more by spending a few moments gazing at the statue of Laocoön and His Sons in the Museo Pio Clemente (part of the Vatican Museums). One of the few statues to claim the distinction of being just as exalted when it was sculpted as when it was rediscovered in Renaissance Italy, it is still considered one of, if not the greatest surviving work of Hellenistic sculpture from Greece. Sculpted at some point between 27 BC and AD 68, perhaps by three greek sculptures, the statue is not considered the most realistic depiction of human suffering in western art but it is considered the most beautiful. It combines nearly perfect examples of all the traits that classical art was supposed to embody: from its exalted, mythical theme and divine balance, to its anatomically perfect musculature and the way it conveys the intense physical and emotional agony of its subjects. To see it up close and in person is to experience the almost overwhelming power that comes from the zenith of classical artistic expression.

Visiting Laocoön and his Sons: What to See

The Name:

Despite being one of the world’s most famous sculptures, few outside of art history circles know how to pronounce the name of this work. For the record, it’s: Lay-o-ko-won.

The Myth

The story of Laocoön is not for the faint of heart. He was a priest of the sun god, Apollo, who he annoyed by breaking his vows of celibacy. He might have gotten away with it (Greek gods were never too strict on celibacy, anyway) had he not tried to dissuade the Trojans from allowing the famous wooden horse, packed to the gills with ambushing greeks, into their city. The Greeks had consecrated their “Trojan horse” to the goddess of wisdom, Athena, and when she caught wind that the wily Laocoön was threatening to ruin the Greek’s plan she sent two large serpents to kill him. Just so he would suffer a bit more the serpents killed his sons first. It is the moment that Laocoön realizes that both he and his sons are doomed that the famous sculpture group captures.

The Sculpture

As far as anyone can tell, Laocoön and His Sons was sculptured from 7 interlocking pieces of marble. It’s six feet tall and although broken parts were restored with plaster for many years, the plaster has now been removed. It is quite clear that the sculptors, who are believed to have been 3 Greeks from Rhodes named Athenodoros, Polydorus, and Agesander were masters of their art. What solidifies the work’s reputation as a masterpiece is not simply its perfect anatomical depiction of Laocoön’s body, but the way it uses this depiction to embody the complicated principles of classical beauty.

Artists in ancient Greece were obsessed with beauty. So much so that a depiction of something deemed ugly – like a frog, or a person with a deformity – was not considered true art, no matter how skillfully it was executed. As you might imagine, this limited the scope of what artists could create. Agony, as anyone can tell you, is not beautiful, so the challenge for our three sculptors was to take a moment of the worst agony that someone can endure – watching their children die before they too are killed – and turn it into beauty. The sculptors achieved this through form and balance – showing the intense pain of the moment in the contorted and rippling muscles of Laocoon. They also turned the scream of pain that would have distorted his face and made it repugnant into a sigh of sorrow and defeat. To the modern eye, it can appear slightly affected, but even after 2,000 years or more, there is no denying its power.

The History

The first mention of the sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons comes from a chapter of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Pliny saw the statue in the palace of Emperor Titus in Rome but it’s unclear if it was an original or a copy of some earlier work. Either way, the statue was lost for over a 1,000 years, although some believe that it simply stayed in Titus’ palace, which itself was lost. It turned up again in 1506 by workers excavating in a Roman vineyard. After having the statue appraised by none other than Michelangelo, Pope Julius II bought it and put it into the Vatican Museums, where it still sits today.

Tips for Visiting Laocoön and His Sons

Opening Times

General opening hours at the Vatican Museums are Monday to Saturday from 9:00am to 6:00pm, with the last tickets sold at 4:00pm.

The Museums are also open on the last Sunday of each month from 9:00am to 12:30pm, at which time entrance is free but lines are very long. If you have a choice, we highly recommend not visiting on the last Sunday of the month because the crowds just are not worth the savings.

A small number of tour groups, like our Pristine Sistine Tour, are allowed inside before the Vatican Museums open to the public each day, availing of special access only available to tour groups with pre-reserved bookings.

Special Closures: Check the Vatican website for more information on holiday closings and special openings.

Closed: Sundays, (except the last Sunday of every month), 25th and 26th of December (Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day) ; January 1, 6; February 11, 22; March 19, 28; June 29 (the Feasts of St. Peter and Paul); August 15; November 1; December 8.

Rules

The rules of the Vatican are strict and pretty uncompromising – please familiarize yourself with them before attempting to visit.

  • Food and drink are not allowed into the Vatican Museums. You can, however, leave them in the cloakroom and collect them at the end of your visit. Any food or drink that goes uncollected will be disposed of at the end of each day.
  • You cannot bring any bag, backpack suitcase or container larger that cm 40 x 35 x15 into the Vatican Museums. Similarly, you can’t enter with medium to large umbrellas, any umbrellas with spiked tips, camera tripods, signage (apart from signs used by certified guides) or walking sticks – except those required by disabled visitors. All of these items can be left in the cloakroom.
  • Firearms are strictly prohibited for visitors within the Vatican Museums and cannot be checked in the cloakroom. Knives, scissors, and other cutting tools are permitted but must be deposited in the cloakroom as a precaution against harming the artwork inside.
  • The Vatican Museums are under constant video surveillance and any touching or tampering with artwork is strictly prohibited. Also, no laser pointers.
  • All tour groups are required to wear headsets for groups of 11 or more people. The use of microphones or any type of voice amplifiers is prohibited.
  • The Vatican has a strict dress code. Both men and women should be sure to wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees. Occasionally visitors get away with wearing a bit less but it’s best not to risk it. Hats are also not allowed.
  • Due to the sacred nature of the Sistine Chapel speaking is not permitted inside.
  • Selfie Sticks are strictly forbidden along with flash photography. However, visitors are allowed to take non-flash photographs anywhere in the Vatican Museums besides the Sistine Chapel. If you try to break any of these rules the Vatican security is authorized to take your photos.
  • If you want to draw anything in the museums you must first get permission from the Vatican Management.
  • Mobile phone use is allowed everywhere beside the Sistine Chapel.

Tickets

Adults €16, Senior/Child €8, Student €4. In order to get a reduced-fare ticket, you must have valid ID upon ticket purchase or collection (in the cast of pre-purchased tickets or tours)

The Best Time for Visiting the Vatican Museums

May through September are considered the high season in Rome, with a bump around Easter which, for a few days, is the busiest time of year. If you visit the Vatican Museums during these months expect to be shoulder to shoulder. Regardless of the time of year, the very best time to visit the Vatican Museums is before they open to the general public, although the only way to do this is by taking a certified Vatican Museum tour. If you want to go it alone, arriving early is still key (think 8:00am) because that at least can get you near the front of the line when it opens at 9am, which can stretch for 2 to 3 hours later in the day during high season. If you aren’t concerned with spending a lot of time in the Vatican Museums you can buy your tickets a half hour before the ticket office closes (3:30pm) but remember that the museum closes promptly at 6:00pm and the guards start clearing the museum earlier.

Getting There

The best way to reach the Vatican Museums is by taxi or metro

If traveling by taxi, make sure to specify to the driver that you are going to the entrance of the Vatican Museums, (“Musei Vaticani) NOT the Basilica of St. Peter (“Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano) which is a 15-minute walk away.

If traveling by metro, take the Metro A line to the Ottaviano stop. As you exit the stop turn left down Via Candia and turn left at Via Tunisi. At the end of the street, you’ll reach a set of steps. Climb them and at the top you’ll find yourself at the entrance to the Vatican Museums.

 

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