Tuesday, June 30 - Rome
I got teary-eyed when I saw the Laocoön. Couldn't move. It's one of the most beautiful things ever created by humans, in my book — muscular and graceful, solid and dynamic, perfectly geometrically balanced. It somehow manages to be bitterly tragic and breathtaking at the same time, poised right on the cusp between human pain and aesthetics. And it utterly refutes the idea that art and the fantastic can't coexist, since it's really just a standard scene from a monster movie (Attack of the Killer Sea Serpents!). This was a bit of a pilgrimage for me — I'd wanted to see it for years and years — and as tour groups came and went like surf in front of me I stood in the Laocoön's alcove in the sunny Cortile Ottagono, smiling and crying.
If you don't know the story: The fellow with the beard is Laocoön, the priest who warned Troy about the Trojan horse ("Beware of Greeks bearing gifts"). Even though Troy ignored the warning, Athena (or perhaps Apollo, or Poseidon) sent sea snakes to kill him and his sons as punishment. The sculpture was dug up in 1506 near Nero's Domus Aurea (which we'd tromped all over the day previous), and it quickly became the very first acquisition of the Vatican Museums. For a long time, Laocoön's right arm was missing; it was displayed with a 16th-century replacement, heroically outstretched and holding a loop of the serpent at bay. Then, in 1906, his (possibly) real arm was found in a marble yard: bent backwards, submissive, still straining but hopeless.
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