The Laocoön: Bandinelli vs. Michelangelo

I guess the Renaissance artist Baccio Bandinelli has been on my mind lately. I realized that somehow I managed to bring up Bandinelli in each of my classes this past week – including my ancient art class!

To be fair to myself, I better say that I didn’t stray too far on a tangent with my ancient art students. I was discussing the classical statue Laocoön (1st century BC) with these students and happened to mention Bandinelli’s Laocoön (1520, shown left). It is not surprising that Renaissance artists and patrons were interested in copying the Laocoön sculpture, because the sculpture was excavated in 1506 after its discovery in a vineyard.

The Laocoön quickly captured the attention of Renaissance artists. Only a few years later, around 1510, the Renaissance architect Bramante hosted a contest between artists to determine who could make a wax version of the ancient Laocoön that could be cast into bronze. Raphael was selected as the judge, and Sansovino received first prize – for a version that has now been lost.

It is too bad that Sansovino’s original version has been lost, because it would give us a better indication of the earliest Renaissance mindset toward this sculpture: when the original, classical Laocoön group was discovered, the central figure’s right arm was missing. Renaissance artists grappled with the idea of how to accurate reconstruct the appearance of the original sculpture. For example, ten years after the Laocoön contest, the sculptor Baccio Bandinelli made additional copies of the Laocoön, and also created a wax arm as a “restoration” for the original Laocoön sculpture in the Vatican. Bandinelli’s composition ends up being very important and influential for later artists, particularly because Bandinelli completely recreates the central figure with an extended right arm above the head.

There are a few reasons why Bandinelli’s composition was so influential: 1) the original Laocoön displayed Bandinelli’s wax-arm restoration, and 2) Bandinelli’s marble copy was commissioned by a major patron of the arts, Cardinal Giulio dei Medici. This marble copy originally was intended as a gift for Francis I, the King of France. However, it appears that Cardinal Giulio dei Medici (who later became Pope Clement VII) liked the sculpture too well to part with it, since it eventually ended up in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici.

Laocoön and His Sons, 17th or 18th century. Bronze, 30 cm (height) x 26 cm (width).  Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2017

Laocoön and His Sons, 17th or 18th century. Bronze, 30 cm (height) x 26 cm (width). Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2017

Subsequently, other artists began to copy Bandinelli’s version, incorporating the straight-arm version. Some believe that the V&A copy is a later Renaissance version made by Sansovino, although the museum maintains that the object is from the 17th-18th centuries. Regardless, the lasting influence of Bandinelli’s composition on subsequent copies is well documented in images from the 16th-19th centuries (see this timeline for some examples).

Not everyone in the Renaissance was pleased with Bandinelli’s compositional choices, however. The great artist Michelangelo, in contrast, felt that the originally arm of the Laocoön probably appeared bent. Bandinelli and Michelangelo were life-long rivals, and this difference in opinion is just one example of the opposition and tension between these artists. (I should say, though, I think Bandinelli felt the rivalry more than Michelangelo, although letters to Michelangelo (see here and here) indicate that he was keenly aware (curious?) of what Bandinelli was doing.)

Regardless of the opposition from Michelangelo, Bandinelli’s proposal for the Laocoön arm came to be generally accepted. Bandinelli must have relished the fact that he – not Michelangelo – received the invitations to create the wax arm reconstruction and the Medici copy. To add insult to injury, Michelangelo had been present the day that the Laocoön was unearthed in Rome. No doubt Michelangelo felt a certain affinity and connection with the classical sculpture. Scholars have even noted that Michelangelo’s figure of Christ in the Last Judgment (Sistine Chapel, 1537-1541, shown right)) was inspired by the classical Laocoön (and note that Christ’s raised arm is bent!).1 Perhaps Michelangelo felt like he was getting “the last Word” with Bandinelli by including that visual reference in his fresco?

Either way, Michelangelo finally got validation in the 20th century (ha – as if Michelangelo needs more validation in the art world!). In 1906 a bent arm was discovered in Rome in a stonemason’s shop (by a sharp-eyed German archaeologist named Ludwig Pollak), and in the 1950s it was generally accepted that this was the arm which had broken off of the Laocoön composition. The current restoration of the classical statue shows a bent arm. So it looks like Michelangelo was right all along!

Do you know any more stories about the rivalry between Michelangelo and Bandinelli? Vasari records that Bandinelli tore a cartoon by Michelangelo into small pieces (you can see Aristotile da San Gallo’s copy of the cartoon, which depicted the Battle of Cascina, here). I know that the topic of rivalry and Bandinelli’s jealously are of interest to many scholars. If you know of any other stories – do share!

*This post was expanded and updated on 03/28/17.

*Some readers may remember that I touched on this Laocoön topic last year. If you’re interested for a little more information (and some links), see here.

1 Michael P. Kemling, “Michaelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’: The Influence of ‘Lacoon and His Sons,'” (University of Georgia, 2003, available online here). For the discussion of the figure of Christ specifically, see Chapter 2.


The "Sumptuous" Arts in Greece

The quarter is over. Over the past few days I’ve reflected on what lectures I enjoyed teaching to my ancient art students. I think that my favorite lecture was based on Kenneth Lapatin’s essay, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Metals: Toward a Historiography of Ancient Greek Minor (?) Arts”1.

The reason why Lapatin includes a question mark after the word “minor” is important: his whole essay revolves around the argument that the Greeks valued the so-called “minor arts” much more than they are valued today. For Lapatin, the “sumptuous” artistic materials like ivory, gold, silver and gemstone were the artistic mediums that the Greeks most prized. In other words, the Greek marble, bronze and (painted) pottery (all of which are placed at the heart of Western art history) weren’t as valued by the ancient Greeks.

To prove his point, Lapatin gives one especially interesting example. He writes that “in the middle of the sixth century BC, the inhabitants of Phocaea decided to abandon their city rather than submit to the Medes. Herodotus reports, ‘They loaded onto their ships their children, women, and household property, and above all the images of the gods from the sanctuaries and other dedications, everything, in fact, except bronzes, stoneworks, and paintings, and they sailed to Chios.'”2 Now I realize that there may have been some practical reasons why the Greeks didn’t load their ships with stonework (it is heavy, after all!), but isn’t it interesting that the art we value today is precisely the art that the Greeks chose to abandon?

In some ways, this news shouldn’t come as a surprise to art historians. We have known for a long time that the main purpose of the Parthenon was to house Phidias’ chryselephantine cult statue of Athena (see above left for a reconstruction of an original of c. 438 BC). The cult statue was the most valued thing by the Greeks, not the building which housed the statue. This is very ironic, because today much more emphasis is placed on the architecture and exterior sculpture of the Parthenon. In fact, it’s interesting that one ancient Greek writer, Pausanias, only mentions the two pediments and cult statue when he described the Parthenon. He ignored the metopes and frieze completely, which suggests that they weren’t very important.3

So, why do we value painting, architecture, and sculpture above the “minor” materials and objects created by the Greeks? Lapatin traces this ideology back to Vasari’s writings of the 16th century (see a 1566-68 self-portrait of Vasari on right). Vasari’s Lives focused on the achievements of three artistic types: painters, sculptors, and architects. As a result, painting, sculpture, and architecture became “the canonical triad” in art history.4 In some ways, it’s not surprising that Vasari promoted these types of art: after all, he was a painter and architect himself. Although the effect of Vasari’s “triad” was not immediate (gems were still were considered part of the arts for a long time afterward), Vasari’s writings took part in “the displacement and demotion of items fashioned from sumptuous materials from the lofty position they held in ancient art and culture (as well as in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance).”5

Lapatin’s argument is fascinating. He also delves into interesting discussions of how Winckelmann affected our modern perception of Greek sculpture, particularly in terms of what we value today (i.e. unpainted white marble). It’s great stuff. I recommend that everyone should get their hands on a copy of this article. Unfortunately, his essay is found in a book that currently is out of print. But I promise that your efforts in securing a copy of this essay will be well worth the effort!

1 Kenneth Lapatin, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Metals: Toward a Historiography of Ancient Greek Minor (?) Arts,” in Ancient Art and its Historiography by A. A. Donohue, ed. (Cambridge: 2003): 69-91.

2 Ibid., 71.

3 Colin Cunningham, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art by Gill Perry and Colin Cunningham, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 53-54. Part of the citation is available online here.

4 Lapatin, 74. It should be noted that Vasari did discuss and laud the importance of gold work and glyptic in the first edition of his Lives (1550). However, the 1568 revision of the text demoted the sumptuous arts and elevated painting instead.

4 Ibid.


My Week in Assorted Thoughts

This week I’ve been thinking about several random art historical facts and ideas. Several of you might have seen some of these links on my Twitter feed, but I wanted to flesh out a few ideas here:
  • Norman Rockwell included a portrait of Grandma Moses in his painting Christmas Homecoming (1948, see right). You can see Moses on the left side of a painting, wearing an old-fashioned dress. The two artists were friends who lived relatively close to each other at one time. (In fact, you can read parts of a story about Norman Rockwell at Grandma Moses’ surprise 88th birthday party here.)
  • I really don’t know that much about Grandma Moses. She never was discussed in any of my art history classes, but I didn’t focus on American art from the 20th century. But could she have been excluded from courses and textbooks because she is a folk artist? Out of curiosity, have any Americanists studied Grandma Moses’ work in an academic setting?
  • I was surprised to learn that Johann Winckelmann, one of the early scholars of art history, was murdered in 1768. He was fifty years old. What if Winckelmann had lived a full life? I wonder if he would have retracted any of his ideas about unpainted classical sculpture, “good taste,” or how Greek art has “noble simplicity.”1 (For example, scholars in the early 19th century were able to document the traces of paint on certain Greek statues after their excavation. If Winckelmann had lived longer, would he have learned this news and changed his ideas about white marble and beauty?) Maybe it’s a stretch, but I like to think about how the Western canon might have been different if Winckelmann had not been murdered.
  • I’ve been reading about the Laocoön statue lately, partially because I want to know more about the theory that Michelangelo created the Laocoön (which is a rather far-fetched idea, in my opinion). I’ve also enjoyed looking at this annotated chronology of the statue: this piece has a pretty rich history!
  • A comment from a student also led to me to look at a pre-20th century restoration of the Laocoön statue. This restoration depicts the arm of the priest as being fully-extended. (The restored arm (now lost) was the work of Renaissance artist Bandio Baccinelli. For those interested, Vasari wrote a little bit about Bandio Baccinelli’s work on the Laocoön here.) It appears that has been a lot of debate regarding how Laocoön originally appeared. As recently as 1989, one scholar argued that the whole composition needs to be more compact and pyramidal in order to be historically accurate.2

How was your week? Were your art historical thoughts as assorted as mine?

1 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, “Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture,” in The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology by Donald Preziosi, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 31-39. For an interesting critique on Winckelmann’s theories, see also Kenneth Lapatin, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Materials: Toward a Historiography of Greek Minor (?) Arts,” from Ancient Art and its Historiography by A. A. Donohue, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 69-91.

2 Seymor Howard, “Laocoon Rerestored,” in American Journal of Archaeology 93, no. 3 (July 1989): 417-422.


Book Review: Vasari’s "The Lives of the Artists"

Well faithful readers, I’m sure that you’re tired of hearing about Vasari in my posts. I don’t blame you. I’ve been writing Vasari-inspired posts for the past several weeks, as I’ve slowly worked my way through the Lives of the Artists text. The funny thing is, I never intended on reading the whole book this fall. I checked out Lives so that I could verify a couple of quotes, but then I just kept reading. And reading. And reading. And now, 500+ pages later, I’ve finally finished! So, this review will probably be my last Vasari-centric post, at least for a while. Here are my final thoughts on Vasari’s Lives:

– This book is simultaneously boring and fascinating. It’s difficult to read Vasari’s lengthy passages which describe works of art, especially since there were no reproductions available in my text. (This website, however, promises to display illustrations with each biography, although I don’t know if all extant reproductions will be provided for every description in the text.) However, many of Vasari’s anecdotes and short stories are really fascinating. I especailly found the story of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti’s rivalry to be quite riveting.

– Vasari’s hyperbolic writing style is a little silly. He is over-the-top in his praise for the majority of artists in the book. Likewise, much of art in the book is described as the most beautiful thing in the world – those descriptions become old after a few paragraphs. Vasari also opens many chapters with generalized, broad statements about life, happiness, or art (a type of “Happy is the man who…” statement), and that also gets a little annoying.

– I can see why Vasari is sometimes called “The Father of Art History.” His methodology of verifying multiple sources for information helped set a precedent for the discipline. He also offers critiques for works of art, and it’s easy to see how he helped to set the standard for art criticism. Even though his writing is prolix and dull at times, it’s quite interesting to see his methodology and ideological influences.

– I would recommend this book to a serious art historian. I think anyone with a mild interest in art would get bored quite easily: the interesting anecdotes and stories are embedded deep within Vasari’s text. If you want to know more interesting stories without reading the book, just let me know. I took notes!

* I am counting this book as part of Heidenkind’s Art History Challenge.


Vasari and Female Artists

I’m in a state of shock. Vasari is best known as the biographer for the great (male) artists of the Italian Renaissance – Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo, etc. But did you know that Vasari mentioned four females in his Lives of the Artists? I had no idea, until I discovered Vasari’s chapter on Properzia de’Rossi the other night. I seriously was dumbfounded – I stared at the word “sculptress” for at least ten seconds.

But don’t get too excited, my feminist art historian friends. Vasari only mentions Rossi in a few paragraphs, and then taps on a few short sentences about three other female artists: Sister Plautilla, Madonna Lucrezia, and Sofonisba Anguissola. You’ve never heard of these artists, you say? Let me show you a sampling of their work:

On the right is Properzia de’Rossi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1520s). Vasari mentions that the subject matter of this panel can parallel the unrequited love that Rossi experienced in her own life. I think this comparison is telling about Vasari’s views on women and feminine nature. The editor of my Lives edition also echoed my thoughts, saying that “while male artists execute works without regard to their personal feelings throughout the Lives, Vasari seems unable to imagine a woman creating a work of art without sentimental or romantic inspiration.”1

On the left is Lamentation with Saints (16th century) by Sister Plautilla (Plautilla Nelli). Vasari mentions that Plautilla was an extremely prolific painter, but surprisingly (or perhaps not-so-surprisingly), only three works are definitively attributed to her today. In an effort to bring public awareness to this artist, the Florence Committee of National Museum Women in the Arts paid to have Lamentation restored in 2006 (see news article here).

I think it’s especially interesting that Vasari doesn’t make any statements about Plautilla’s divine role as an artist or God-given talent (which he makes about the male artists in his book). Instead, he stresses that Plautilla and the other ]female artists learned and acquired artistic skill. Futhermore, Vasari wrote this about Plautilla: “But best among her works are those she imitated from others, which demonstrates that she would have created marvellous works if, like men, she had been able to study and work on design and draw natural objects from life.”2 Plautilla was alive when Vasari wrote her biography, and I wonder if she cringed to know that Vasari thought her best works were those that she copied from the divinely inspired, male artists.

Sofonisba Anguissola is the only female artist with whom I was familiar before reading Vasari. I read about Anguissola when I was doing research on Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard. Several scholars think that Caravaggio’s two versions of this subject were influenced by Anguissola’s Boy Bitten by a Crayfish (also called Boy Bitten by a Crab, c. 1554, on right). Mary Garrard has discussed Anguissola’s drawing in depth. She mentioned how Anguissola painted a picture of a laughing girls, which Michelangelo saw and commented that “the image of a crying boy would have been better.”3 Garrard finds that Michelangelo’s statement implied that boys are better artistic subjects than girls, and tragedy is better than comedy.4 Upon hearing this, Anguissola sent Michelangelo the drawing of Boy Bitten by a Crayfish. However, instead of showing the crying male in a tragic, noble position (and follow Michelangelo’s inferred suggestion), Anguissola shows the boy in an ignoble state with an amused female standing nearby. Wasn’t Anguissola a little sassy? I wonder what Michelangelo thought of the drawing.

Madonna Lucrezia is the other female artist mentioned by Vasari. Unfortunately, there isn’t any (known) surviving art by her. In fact, we know little about Lucrezia beyond that she was active around 1560 and her teacher was Alessandro Allori. It’s sad to think that her work and life is lost to history, most likely because she was a female. I’m glad that Vasari made the effort to mention her and these other females in his Lives, but also disappointed that most females didn’t receive artistic opportunity or art historical attention at the time. It makes me wonder what other female artists have been unappreciated and obscured by historical biases.

Is anyone else shocked that Vasari mentioned female artists in his text?

1 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, translation by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), 565.

2 Ibid., 342.

3 Mary D. Garrard, “Here’s Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist,” Renaissance Quarterly 47, no. 3 (Autumn, 1994): 611.

4 Ibid., 612.


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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.