Greek and Roman

Titian’s “Monkey Laocoön”

Boldrini (after Titian), "Monkey Laocoön" (Three Monkeys Imitating the Laocoon), c. 1545

I am endlessly intrigued by how Renaissance and Baroque artists were influenced by the Laocoön (1st century BC), a Hellenistic sculpture which was excavated in January 1506. In fact, I think that Renaissance and Baroque art would be quite different if this sculpture was never unearthed. Scholarship on Baroque art (and the acceptance of Baroque art as a subject of study) would be different, too.

But perhaps not all Renaissance and Baroque artists were infatuated with the Laocoön, as might be suggested in Titian’s satire of the statue, Monkey Laocoön (c. 1545). Thanks to Niccolo Boldrini, who did an engraving based off of Titian’s pen drawing, one can perhaps deduce Titian’s sentiment. As early as the 17th century, scholars proposed think that Titian created this drawing to mock contemporary idolaters of this ancient statue.1

However, there are a lot of other debates as to why Titian might have created this drawing. As early as 1831, it was proposed that Titian’s drawing was supposed to be a satire on Bandinelli’s clumsy copy of the sculpture.2 Alternatively, Oskar Fischel proposed in 1917 that Titian created this drawing to free himself from the overwhelming influence that the statue had upon his work.3

Titian, Averoldi Altarpiece, Brescia, 1520-1522

I think that Fischel’s theory also is interesting, since it is known that Titian owned a cast of the Laocoön.4 Seymour Howard even notes that the “poses and pathos” of the Laocoön appear in Titian’s Averoldi altarpiece in Brescia (shown above), which was made about twenty years before Titian’s caricature drawing. Titian even expressed admiration for classical sculptures in a letter (which pre-dates the woodcut), writing that while in Rome he was “learning from these most wonderful ancient stones.”5

Perhaps all of these arguments can co-exist. Titian might have been criticizing the contemporary infatuation with this sculpture, but also laughing at himself and his own reliance on antiquity. (I bet Titian had a sense of humor!) Or, who knows, perhaps this caricature is simply the product of boredom and doodling?

I also wanted to mention one more argument about this caricature, which is completely different from anything else that has been put forward. Janson argued that Titian’s drawing serves as a commentary on contemporary debates (between theorists Vesalius and Galen) about similarities between ape and human anatomy. Janson feels like Titian was critical of Galen, and interprets the caricature as stating, “This is what the heroic bodies of classical antiquity would have to look like in order to conform to the anatomical specifications of Galen!”6

El Greco, "Laocoön," early 1610s

Is there any theory that is convincing to you? I like aspects of each one, for different reasons. Do you know of any other satires associated with the Laocoön? One more thought: Now that I’m familiar with Titian’s Monkey Laocoön, I think that I will forever look at El Greco’s Laocoön painting (early 1610s, shown above) in a different light. Doesn’t it look like the Trojan priest has sprouted a tail? Oh dear!

1 Philip Sohm, “Fighting with Style” in Italian Baroque Artby Susan M. Dixon, ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 39, 45. To see more information on the mention of this theory in the seventeenth-century, see footnote #8 in H. W. Janson, “Titian’s Laocoön Caricature and the Vesalian-Galenist Controversy” in The Art Bulletin 28, no. 1 (1946): 49.

2 Janson, 49. This argument makes me wonder if Titian might have agreed or disagreed with Michelangelo’s interpretation that the Laocoön originally was depicted with a bent arm. Bandinelli proposed that the central figure was depicted with an extended right arm. However, Titian’s drawing depicts a bent arm, which seems more reminiscent of Michelangelo’s interpretation (and is consistent with the modern restoration, after the arm was discovered in the early 20th century. To read more about the Michelangelo and Bandinelli debate, see here:

3 Ibid. Janson also critiques Fischel’s theory, finding that Titian would not have created such a personal response in a drawing that was intended for mass distribution in the form of a woodcut. See Janson, p. 50. As far as I can tell, though, we don’t know for certain if this drawing originally was intended to be made into a woodcut.

4 Seymour Howard, “On Iconology, Intention, Imagos, and Myths of Meaning,” in Arbitus et Historiae 17, no. 34 (1996): 94.

5 Janson, p. 50.

6 Ibid., 51.



The Farnese Hercules and Renaissance “Substitutions”

Farnese Hercules (also known as the "Weary Hercules"), 3rd century CE. Roman copy by Glykon after the 4th century BC bronze original by Lysippos. Height approximately 10.4 feet (3.17 meters).

This past week my research meandered into Roman art and the Farnese Hercules. This Roman statue was excavated in various pieces from the Baths of Caracalla during the Renaissance period, in 1546. The legs, however, weren’t found during the early excavations. Before the original legs were discovered, the Renaissance sculptor Guglielmo della Porta provided other legs for the piece. And although the original legs were found not long after, della Porta’s legs were still kept with the statue until 1787, when the originals were finally put into place!

Apparently, Michelangelo advised that della Porta’s legs be retained with the original statue, in part to prove that modern sculptors could compare with those from antiquity.2 I think this is interesting, given that Michelangelo had already been involved in a longstanding debate with Bandinelli regarding the original composition of the Laocoön. Michelangelo obviously wanted to respect the original composition of classical statues, but it seems like he didn’t necessarily care if the original marble took part in the composition. Perhaps Michelangelo also wanted to promote Guglielmo della Porta, who was his protégé. Anyhow, Michelangelo obviously found that della Porta’s legs were acceptable, although some slight differences can be observed in the position of the feet (see below).

Jocob Bos, Farnese Hercules, 1562. Engraving. Michelangelo designed the niche in which the Farnese Hercules was placed.

After the original legs were finally reunited with the sculpture in 1787, Goethe recorded that he saw the Farnese Hercules in his Italian Journey (1786-1788, German: Italienische Reise). Goethe criticized della Porta’s “substitute” legs, and felt that the installation of the original legs made the sculpture “one of the most perfect works of antiquity.”3

Of course, the Farnese Hercules isn’t the only piece of classical art which was “restored” during the Renaissance period. Although it seems like della Porta’s legs functioned as an adequate substitute for many, I’ll admit that there are other Renaissance “restorations” which seem a bit awkward to me. Perhaps I’m just used to the missing limbs of the “Apollo Belvedere,” but I think that the Renaissance additions on this statue aren’t completely graceful, especially Apollo’s hands and fingers.

Left: Apollo Belvedere as restored in the 1530s. The left hand, right forearm, and fig leaf were added at the request of Pope Paul IV. Right: The Apollo Belvedere as restored after WWII. The Renaissance additions were removed, with the exception of the fig leaf. Today, the fig leaf also has been removed.

Left: "Apollo Belvedere" (2nd century AD) as restored in the 1530s. The left hand, right forearm, and fig leaf were added at the request of Pope Paul IV. Right: "Apollo Belvedere" as restored after WWII. The Renaissance additions were removed, with the exception of the fig leaf. Today, the fig leaf has been removed, but it appears that the Vatican currently displays a restored version of the statue that is similar to the Renaissance restoration. If anyone has information on when this most recent restoration took place, I would love to know!

When considering the post-WWII restoration of the “Apollo Belvedere” (in which the Renaissance additions were removed), Jas Elsner wrote that “whether the modern concern to return such marbles to their ‘authentic’ form constitutes an improvement is, and will remain, a moot point.”4 I’m up for discussion, and I’d like to see what people think about “improvements” and “authenticity.” Do you have any thoughts on the substitutions and “restorations” of Greco-Roman sculpture that took place during the Renaissance? Is it better to only leave original material on these works of art? Should we make conclusions about later “restorations” on a sculpture-to-sculpture basis, depending on the nature and quality of the addition/substitution? (And if so, does that mean that we value aesthetics and our opinion of quality more than original history?)

I feel like these are tough questions for me; I fluctuate between both camps. I am a sucker for original context and original works of art, but I do think that sometimes a substitution can help to recreate the original context in some form. If della Porta didn’t create substitute legs for the Farnese Hercules, the monumental height and overwhelming effect of that sculpture would have been lost (until, of course, the original legs were found). On the other hand, I also think it’s important to realize that the works of art have their own history, even beyond the period in which they were created. Sometimes I like having a visual reminder that specific works of art held importance during the Renaissance.

1 Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900 (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1981), 229.

2 Ibid. See also Jan Todd, “The History of Cardinal Farnese’s ‘Weary Hercules,” in Iron Game History (August 2005): 30. Todd citation can be read HERE.

3 Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey (Penguin Classics, 1970), p. 346. Citation can be read HERE.

4 Jas Elsner, Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 16.


Intentional Damage: The “Night Watch” and Temple of Artemis

I don’t like it when works of art get damaged (not by any means!), but I’m intrigued when such catastrophes occur. I’ve blogged about this topic before, discussing instances when Michelangelo’s Pietà and Malevich’s Suprematism (White on White Cross) were damaged by mentally-unstable individuals. (I’ve even decided to start an “intentional damage” label for these kinds of posts.)

I wanted to write about two works of art/architecture that have been intentionally damaged over time. The following two works of art may seem unrelated to most, but they are connected in my mind: I learned more about the damage done to these works during my recent trip to Europe. I had an extended layover in Amsterdam and got to visit the Rijksmuseum (where I saw Rembrandt’s The Night Watch) and finished my trip in Selçuk/Ephesus, where the Temple of Artemis is located.

Rembrandt, "Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq" (The Night Watch), 1642

When visiting the Rijksmuseum, I was reminded that “The Night Watch” was greatly damaged in 1975, when a mentally-unstable school teacher, Wilhelmus de Rijk, slashed the painting with a bread knife. You can see some of the initial damage in the following YouTube clip. Don’t those slashes just pull at your heart strings?

Although the 1975 incident is the most famous example of damage to Rembrandt’s masterpiece, there are actually a few other times in which the “Night Watch” has been attacked. An unemployed shoemaker slashed the painting during World War I, to protest his inability to find employment. (Which is so ridiculous! Who would want to hire someone who just slashed a priceless painting?)1 In April 1990, it was reported that a jobless Dutchman sprayed an unknown chemical substance (later determined to be acid) on the painting, but luckily the damage was minimal. (Note: The Rijksmuseum’s site also mentions that the painting was sprayed with acid in 1985, but I think that this date is actually referring to the 1990 event.)

Detail of "Night Watch" text label from Rijksmuseum, showing the area where evidence of the 1975 damage is still seen on the painting

The other intentionally-damaged art that I recently learned about is the Temple of Artemis, near Ephesus. Before my trip, I already knew that this structure (which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) is now a ruin (see below).2 However, I didn’t realize that this structure was burned in 359 BC, by an allegedly mentally-unstable person named Herostratos (also spelled Herostratus) who hoped to make his mark on history.3 Interestingly, this fire was also said to occur on the same night that Alexander the Great was born. Although there isn’t a way to verify that the fire took place on this exact date of July 20th or 26th (beyond what is mentioned in historical writings), archaeologists have noted that the some ruins from the site bear traces of fire.4

Herostratos was executed for his crime, and the Ephesians also created a decree to ban the mention of the Herostratos’s name. Obviously, the ban was not followed, since the story has been recorded by historians like Theopompos of Chios.

Parts of the ruined temple later were used to help build the nearby Basilica of Saint John. So, I guess, in some ways you can go and see some of the Temple of Artemis when you are in Selçuk, although the materials have been reconfigured to help form a different religious structure!

Ruins of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (modern Selçuk), Turkey (begun 8th century BC)

In November 2011, plans were announced to build a $150 million reconstruction of the Temple of Artemis. I didn’t hear anything about this reconstruction while I was in Turkey, which makes me wonder if the project received funding. If the temple does get rebuilt, though, we’ll need to make sure that arsonists stay away!

Want to read about more damaged art? Artdaily has compiled a good list. Do you know of more examples of intentionally-damaged art? Does anyone have a thought as to why mentally-unstable people would be drawn to damage art (as opposed to something else)?

1 In many respects, Rembrandt’s painting is actually “priceless.” Although the members of the civic guard paid Rembrandt 1,600 guilders back in the 17th century, there is no other price attached to this piece. The museum does not insure the painting (it is in loan from the city of Amsterdam), in accordance with Culture Ministry policy.

2 Several temples were built on this site over time. A few reconstruction of the temple are found HERE and HERE.

3 Albert Borowitz, Terrorism for Self-Glorification: The Herostratos Syndrome (Kent State University Press, 2005), 4 – 19. Citation can be viewed online HERE. This citation also follows the historiography of a allegation that Herostratos burned the Temple of Artemis on the same night that Alexander the Great was born.

4 Ibid., p. 5. Citation can be viewed online HERE.


How to Cover Ancient Sites: Build Dams!

I’m back from my trip to Turkey! It was so neat to see Hagia Sophia, the Süleymaniye Mosque, the Anastasis painting in the Chora Church, Ephesus, Pergamon, the rock-cut churches of Cappadocia, and much more. I’m sure I’ll share photos and thoughts on the trip intermittently on this blog. I took hundreds of photos and learned a lot. But, like always, I left my trip feeling like I had a lot left to learn. I’m excited to follow up on the questions that were generated during my trip.

A highlight of the trip: seeing the original location for the Altar of Zeus at the acropolis of Pergamon (modern-day Bergama). Be still my heart! Now I just have to go to Berlin to see the actual altar!

One of the things that I found most surprising on this trip actually occurred as I was taking a gondola ride up to the acropolis at Pergamon. I noticed a large dam at the base of the acropolis. This dam was built by DSI, the State Hydraulic Works in Turkey. My friends’ guide books mentioned that this dam, the Kestel Dam (built 1983-1988), covered up some ancient ruins. Upon going to the local museum in Bergama, I learned that salvage excavations took place between 1977-80 and 1985-88. Several finds were made, and it was discovered that the site was not only a necropolis but also included the pottery workshops mentioned by Pliny.1

Salvage Finds from the Kestel Dam, Bergama Museum

From what I can tell, the construction of the Kestel Dam didn’t cause much resistance in the art world or Turkish community. Perhaps the finds weren’t considered significant enough to generate interest. (Of course, these excavations took place before the Internet came about, which may also account for the lack of information/coverage on the topic.) It is interesting to see, however, that the construction of another dam in Bergama (Turkey), the Yortanli Dam, has caused quite a stir over the past few years.

Some of the ruins from the ancient site Allianoi, before they were covered by the reservoir created by Yortanli Dam

I’m quite surprised that I didn’t hear about the Yortanli Dam or the ancient site of Allianoi before going to Turkey. Since coming home, I’ve noticed that the topic has seen a lot of press coverage since dam construction began in 1998. NPR covered the story in 2005, World Archaeology published a piece in 2005, CNN wrote an article in 2010, National Geographic posted pictures of the site in 2010, and the Times wrote an article in 2011 (an op-ed for the article is available online).

Allianoi is a Roman bath complex located in Bergama, which is considered to be a major historical significance. Several have claimed that Allianoi is the world’s oldest thermal spa. The site was discovered when preliminary excavations took place in 1998, in preparation for construction of the multi-million-dollar dam project. Columned courtyards, well-preserved floor mosaics, and sculpture were found at the site. The finds were astounding, especially since most reports still claim that only 20% of the site was excavated.

Various debates and spurious arguments took place in regards to the preservation of Allianoi from the impending dam construction, including a controversial proposal in 2007 which suggested that covering structures on the site with clay would conserve the ruins. The construction of the dam moved forward and in 2010 it was reported that ten thousand meters of the site were covered with sand. Unfortunately, activists lament that water will still be able to damage the site, regardless of the sand.

The battle to preserve Allianoi was lost; today the site has been covered with about 15 meters of water. I think that this is such an unfortunate loss. There is much doubt that the site will ever be excavated, even after the dam’s lifespan is spent. I wish something could have been done to appease those who were interested in preserving the site, and also appease the farmers who were in need of irrigation water.

Allianoi Nymph, 2nd century CE. In recent years, this sculpture became the "poster child" for the campaign to save the Allianoi complex.

When riding the acropolis gondola and discussing the Kestel Dam in Bergama with my friends, I expressed my dismay that the Turkish government would let a dam cover any historical site. My friend replied, “Well, which is more important: providing water for hundreds of people or saving ancient ruins?” I hastily replied (though with a trace of self-awareness), “We have to save history above anything else!” But as I’ve sat and thought about my friend’s question more, I’ve realized how complex situations can be. At what point do we stop preserving history and try to care for present needs? (Can the needs of both the past and the present be met at all times?) History needs us just as much as we need history. If we aren’t around, there won’t be anyone around to appreciate and learn from the past. On the other hand, if we don’t preserve history, it will never exist for us.

1 Museum text panel, Bergama Museum (24 June 2012). The panel discusses that the workshops were mentioned by “Pliny, the Roman author.” I assume that this refers to Pliny the Elder (instead of Pliny the Younger).


Ancient Greeks and Romans Broke their Pediments

Diagram of broken, segmental (rounded) and open pediments

Like other Baroque art historians, I love the broken pediment as an architectural feature. A broken pediment is  “broken” at the apex of a triangular pediment. I usually don’t differentiate between the “open” and “broken” pediment when I teach by students about these features, but I know that many architectural historians choose to differentiate between the two. An “open” pediment refers to when the base of the pediment has been removed (or “opened,”). One of my favorite broken pediments from the Baroque period (which actually has been broken, opened, and also shifted backward) is found in the Cornaro Chapel, designed by the artist Bernini (1645-1652).

Both open and broken pediments were popular in Baroque art. Baroque scholars love these kinds of pediments; they serve as good examples of how 17th century architects added a little bit more dynamism and movement into their architectural features (in contrast to the harmony and symmetry that characterized much of the architecture of the Renaissance).1

But I think that it’s hard for Baroque scholars to remember sometimes that the idea of segmenting pediments was not developed during the Baroque period. In fact, the broken and/or open pediment existed in ancient Rome and Hellenistic architecture from Alexandria.2 Unfortunately, not many extant examples of architecture survive from Alexandria, so scholars need to look to Roman and/or Nabatean art that copied Alexandrian architecture, such as the Market Gate of Miletus, Treasury at Petra, and Pompeiian wall paintings (all shown below).

I often teach my students about how the Greek Classical period is similar to the art of the Renaissance, and how the Hellenistic period is similar to the art of the Baroque period. The broken pediment in Hellenistic architecture is a further manifestation of this fact. It’s also interesting to see that the Romans picked up on this architectural feature that would probably have been conceived as “distorted” by Greeks who lived during what has been termed the “High Classical” period. In this light, the broken pediment is another manifestation of how Roman architecture was interested in the re-invention of Classical Greek architecture. No wonder they latched onto the Hellenistic invention of the broken pediment.

Here are some examples of broken pediments that appear in ancient Roman art:

Market Gate of Miletus, 2nd century CE. Currently located in the Pergamon Museum (Berlin). Image courtesy of Thorsten Hartmann via Wikipedia.

Facade Al-Khazneh (The Treasury), Petra, Jordan, 2nd century BC -2nd century CE. Image courtesy of Bernard Gagnon on Wikipedia.

Detail of second style wall paintin from cubiculum M of the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, Boscoreale, Italy, ca. 50-40 BCE

Arch of Tiberius, ca. 26 C.E. (rebuilt around core of earlier monument, ca. 30 B.C.E.), Orange, France

Broken pediment from Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan, c. 150 CE. Image courtesy of Jerzy Strzelecki via Wikipedia.

What are your favorite examples of the broken (or open) pediment in architecture?

1 That being said, there are examples of the broken pediment that exist in Late Renaissance architecture. For example, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger employed broken pediments on the top story of the façade of the Palazzo Farnese (ca. 1530-1546).

2 See Judith McKenzie, “The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt, 300 BC to AD 700, Volume 63″ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 105. Source available online here. See also Judith McKenzie, “Alexandra and the Origins of Baroque Architecture,” available online here. The latter citation also includes a discussion of how the earliest surviving examples of the segmental pediment (a rounded, semi-circular pediment) are found in Alexandrian architecture.


Email Subscription

An email notification will be sent whenever a new post appears on this site.
Email *



This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.