Sarah Blake McHam
"Laocoön, or Pliny Vindicated"
On January 14, 1506, a discovery shook the artistic and antiquarian worlds of Italy. After decades of digging up unidentifiable fragments, a major over-life-size statue group was unearthed in Rome that was both almost complete and autographed. The subject matter, Laocoőn and his two sons entangled by murderous sea serpents, was unusual enough to be readily recognized as the doomed Trojans Virgil had described (Aeneid 2.201-27). Furthermore, the marble was inscribed with the names of the collaborators, Hagesandros, Polydorus and Athenodorus. The sculpture’s subject and signatures allowed it to be readily matched to the Roman Pliny the Elder’s lengthy laudatory description in his Natural History (c. 77 AD). If Pliny’s notice confirmed the sculpture was the Laocoön, then its discovery had the reciprocal effect of corroborating Pliny’s accuracy and reliability. As this paper will show, the Natural History solidified its status as a favorite reference source throughout the sixteenth century. The demonstrated unimpeachable nature of Pliny’s testimony influenced period developments in both Italian art and theory.