Showing off Laocoon
I heartily disapprove of those people who sign up for a three day conference, but only show their faces in the conference room to give their own paper, not bothering to listen to what anyone else has to say. It’s a bit like teaching: part of the point of a conference is being there, the face to face encounters between the lectures, and what you have to say about other people’s ideas.
That said, I do think – as I’ve hinted before, when I paid a flying visit to Niagara Falls – that playing hooky for a session or two is a forgivable crime. So on the Saturday morning of the “Oriental Religions” conference in Rome, I gave myself some time off to go to the Vatican Museums.
Visiting the Vatican is usually a struggle. Maybe some people know a secret that I don’t. But every time I choose to go, there is a huge queue simply to get in to the ticket office, the crowds inside mean that progress around the museum is slow (especially if you are anywhere near the route to the Sistine Chapel) and the restaurant is lousy.
But what attracted me to go back again was a new exhibition (it actually opened that very Saturday) of the most famous ancient Roman statue ever: the Laocoon.
This is an extraordinary marble creation depicting the Trojan priest who warned his compatriots against accepting the gift-horse, plus his two young sons, being killed by snakes (as told in Virgil’s Aeneid). It was dug up in Rome exactly 500 years ago in 1506 (hence the show), apparently in the presence of Michelangelo himself. Or, at least, that was the Renaissance urban myth.
Practicalities first. When I got out of the cab, the queue was enormous (if you know the area, it was stretching back almost into Piazza Risorgimento). I really didn’t have the time to wait, so the moral dilemma was whether to jump it; the practical one was how. Moral doubts, I am afraid, were quickly dispatched, so I ambled along the queue until I found a place near the front where I could ‘blend in” amongst some chatty Japanese too busy to notice.
In fact, I needn’t have bothered with subterfuge. When I got inside, I found that the Laocoon show was in a separate gallery before the ticket office and so it was entirely free. I suspect that if you just walk up to the front of the queue and say that you’ve come to see the exhibition only, they let you straight in anyway.
For anyone interested in the Roman sculpture, it’s really worth seeing (it runs till the end of February). For a start, it displays the sculpture itself in a striking temporary installation. Of course, part of the charm of the Laocoon is that it is still displayed in the gentle natural light of the Belvedere courtyard in the Vatican, where it has resided almost continuously since it was discovered (apart from a brief excursion to the Louvre, courtesy of Napoleon). But it is interesting to see what it looks like (answer: fabulous) if you give it the modern spot light treatment.
For connoisseurs, there is also the first chance to see it right next to a sculpture discovered in a seaside cave at Sperlonga, outside Rome, in the 1950s – a head of Odysseus from a vast (though now pretty ruined) group depicting the blinding of the Cyclops, Polyphemus. In a lucky coincidence, an inscription found on the site names the same sculptors as the elder Pliny, writing in the first century AD, says sculpted the Laocoon. Here their work can be directly compared.
But most of the fun of the show comes from looking at what later artists made of the sculpture. The discovery of the Laocoon effectively kick started art history and art theory in the West (the problem it raised was how on earth we could aesthetically admire a work of art that depicted a dreadful and painful death). And it was copied, parodied and coveted for centuries.
There was also intense competition to restore the lost arm of the main figure. I wrote about this a few years ago in the TLS. It was good to see here the truncated bit of elbow, which is often said to be Michelangelo's abortive attempt at restoration. Apart from that, my favourite things were a clever drawing of Napoleon’s triumphal procession of the sculpture and other Italian art treasures into Paris, to fill up his new Louvre. And an unsettling engraving, once said to be by Titian, which shows Laocoon and his sons all transformed into monkeys.
It’s an attractive little exhibition – especially if you don’t have to queue for two hours to see it.