When Aeneas recounts the fall of Troy in Book 2 of The Aeneid, he gruesomely depicts the death of the priest Laocoön, whose  reward for cautioning that the Trojans should “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” is strangulation by two sea serpents. Around 70 BCE, Pliny the Elder noted a group statue of Laocoön and his two sons in the home of Emperor Titus. Yet it was not until 1506 that this was rediscovered in Rome, and soon put on display in the Vatican, where it remains to this day.

The recovered Laocoön has occasioned many reflections on the aesthetics of pain. Vergil portrayed him as “bellowing“:

“at the same time he raised to the stars hair-raising shouts like the roars of a bull when it flees wounded from a sacrificial altar and shakes the ineffectual axe from its neck”:

Clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit:
quales mugitus, fugit cum saucius aram
taurus, et incertam excussit cervice securim.

In 1766, the German critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing used the Laocoön to meditate upon what he called the “Limits of Painting and Poetry.” Lessing posited that words were more conducive to the depiction of temporal action, plastic arts more conducive to spatial realms:

“If it be true that painting employs wholly different signs or means of imitation from poetry, – the one using forms and colours in space, the other articulate sounds in time, – and if signs must unquestionably stand in convenient relation with the thing signified, then signs arranged side by side can represent only objects existing side by side, or whose parts so exist, while consecutive signs can express only objects which succeed each other, or whose parts succeed each other, in time.”


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