The Laocoön group, in marble, was found on 14 January 1506 near the “Seven Halls” on the Esquiline Hill (Domus Aurea area). In his Natural History (XXXVI, 37), Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., wrote of this statue that it was the work of the Rhodes sculptors Hagesandros, Athanodoros and Polydoros, that it stood in the palace of the emperor Titus, and that it was to be preferred to all other depictions of a similar subject in painting or in bronze. When it was discovered, the statue was recognized from the ancient writer’s description. Julius II purchased it on 23 March 1506, and had it brought here.
Laocoön, the priest of Apollo, and his two sons are locked in the coils of two serpents, on the steps of an altar. Laocoön’s chest rises and swells as he vainly attempts to tear away the head of the serpent that is about to bite him on the hip. The other serpent has already sunk its fangs into the side of the younger son, who collapses in agony, while the elder son attempts to free himself from its coils. Virgil describes the episode in detail (Aeneid II, 199—233): the Trojan priest Laocoön had warned his compatriots against the wooden horse, left by the Greeks as “an offering to Athene”, and had hurled his lance at it. This angered Athene, who sent serpents to kill Laocoön. Misinterpreting the omen, the Trojans ignored Laocoön’s warning, and dragged the wooden horse into the city. Only Aeneas understood the true significance of the omen, and he and his family saved themselves by fleeing to Italy where Aeneas founded Lavinium, and his son Alba Longa. As far back as Caesar’s time the legendary Trojan ancestry of the gens Julia had been used as a political argument. Augustus made the legend the keystone of his empire, using it to legitimize his claim to the throne. The Laocoön group, which Pliny saw in the imperial palace, was probably commissioned by the emperor in the first half of the first century A.D., and made by the Rhodes sculptors after a bronze original of the 2nd century B.C. The flexed right arm was discovered by Ludwig Pollak in 1905; it proved to belong to the figure of Laocoön, and was placed on the statue during the last restoration, in 1957—60. Since the significance of this sculpture is not limited to its merits as a work of art, but also includes its history, Montorsoli’s old reconstruction has been preserved in a plaster cast, which can be seen from one of the windows of the Gregorian Profane Museum.