A Question of Forgery
January 14, 1506, was an exciting day to be in Rome…
In his ancient text, Natural History, Roman author Pliny wrote that Laocoön “which is in the house of the emperor Titus, a work to be admired above any painting or any bronze statue: Laocoön, his sons, and the marvelous tangles of the serpents were sculpted in the same marble along the lines of a common project, by remarkable artists: Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus from Rhodes.”
Michelangelo’s friends and contemporaries had dreamed of finding Laocoön. They’d read Pliny’s accounts of its beauty and importance in ancient Rome. And then, on January 14, 1506, the sculpture emerged from the earth where it had been buried for more than 1000 years.
The only account of the discovery of Laocoön comes from a letter written by Giuliano da Sangallo’s son, Francesco. Sangallo, a friend of Michelangelo and a collector of antiquities, went to the excavation with Michelangelo and Francesco. Fifty years later, Francesco, recalled the monumental day in a letter.
Vasari, described sculpture before the discovery of Laocoön as having a “dry manner, crude and rough.” He attributes the lifelike vigor of great Renaissance sculpting to exposure of “certain old things excavated from the earth, that were discussed in Pliny, among the most famous the Laocoön, Hercules and the large torso of the Belvedere, the Cleopatra, the Apollo and many others.”
But here’s the really interesting part…
Recent scholars have suggested that perhaps Michelangelo, himself schooled in the art of forgery, carved Laocoön during his first trip to Rome and buried it to be “discovered” at a later date. We know that Michelangelo had forged antiquities before. Is Laocoön the work of his imagination rather than the celebrated ancient sculpture? One expert who I interviewed said, “If it is true, it would explain a whole lot.”