If we compare the Pergamene altar-frieze with scenes of combat from the best period of Greek art, say with the metopes of the Parthenon or the best preserved frieze of the Mausoleum, we see how much more complicated and confused in composition and how much more violent in spirit is this later work. Yet, though we miss the “noble simplicity” of the great age, we cannot fail to be impressed with the Titanic energy which surges through this stupendous composition. The “decline” of Greek art, if we are to use that term, cannot be taken to imply the exhaustion of artistic vitality.
The existence of a flourishing school of sculpture at Rhodes during the Hellenistic period is attested by our literary sources, as well as by artists’ inscriptions found on the spot. Of the actual productions of that school we possess only the group of Laocoon and his sons (Fig. 187). This was found in Rome in 1506, on the site of the palace of Titus. The principal modern parts are: the right arm of Laocoon with the adjacent parts of the snake, the right arm of the younger son with the coil of the snake around it, and the right hand and wrist of the older son. These restorations are bad. The right arm of Laocoon should be bent so as to bring the hand behind the head, and the right hand of the younger son should fall limply backward.
Laocoon was a Trojan priest who, having committed grievous sin, was visited with a fearful punishment. On a certain occasion when he was engaged with his two sons in performing sacrifice, they were attacked by a pair of huge serpents, miraculously sent, and died a miserable death. The sculptors—for the group, according to Pliny, was the joint work of three Rhodian artists—have put before us the moving spectacle of this doom. Laocoon, his body convulsed and his face distorted by the torture of poison, his mouth open for a groan or a cry, has sunk upon the altar and struggles in the agony of death. The younger son is already past resistance; his left hand lies feebly on the head of the snake that bites him and the last breath escapes his lips. The older son, not yet bitten, but probably not destined to escape, strives to free himself from the coil about his ankle and at the same time looks with sympathetic horror upon his father’s sufferings.
No work of sculpture of ancient or modern times has given rise to such an extensive literature as the Laocoon. None has been more lauded and more blamed. Hawthorne “felt the Laocoon very powerfully, though very quietly; an immortal agony, with a strange calmness diffused through it, so that it resembles the vast rage of the sea, calm on account of its immensity.” [Footnote: “Italian Note-books,” under date of March 10,1858.] Ruskin, on the other hand, thinks “that no group has exercised so pernicious an influence on art as this; a subject ill chosen, meanly conceived, and unnaturally treated, recommended to imitation by subtleties of execution and accumulation of technical knowledge,” [Footnote: