A scholar has suggested that "Laocoön," a fabled sculpture whose unearthing in 1506 has deeply influenced thinking about the ancient Greeks and the nature of the visual arts, may well be a Renaissance forgery - possibly by Michelangelo himself. [more]
Her contention has stirred some excitement and considerable exasperation among art historians in the Classical and Renaissance fields. Many other challenges to accepted attributions have faded quickly into oblivion.
The scholar advancing the theory, Lynn Catterson, a summer lecturer in art history at Columbia University, presented her argument in a talk at the university's Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America on April 6. Maneuvering through a wealth of material - including Michelangelo's drawings, records of his banking activity and his acknowledged reputation as an avid seeker of renown and wealth - she said, "He had the motives and the means."
The strikingly naturalistic sculpture, 951/2 inches tall, depicts a deadly attack on the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons by writhing sea snakes dispatched by Athena - or, some say, Poseidon - after Laocoön warned against admitting the Trojan horse during the siege of Troy. It resides in the Vatican Museums in Rome.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Catterson cited a pen study by Michelangelo dating from 1501 depicting the rear of a male torso that resembles the back of the "Laocoön" - and Michelangelo's documented finesse at copying.
"That the Laocoön was carved by Michelangelo explains why then, and why now, its effect is mesmerizing," she said.
Richard Brilliant, Anna S. Garbedian emeritus professor of the humanities at Columbia and an authority on classical antiquities - his works include "My Laocoön: Alternative Claims in the Interpretation of Artworks" (University of California Press, 2000) - said that Dr. Catterson's contention was "noncredible on any count."
For one thing, he said, "she made absolutely no reference to ancient sculptures that could be related to the 'Laocoön,' " including a large body of ancient fragments found just before World War II at Sperlonga, a site near Rome where Tiberius had a luxurious villa, that refer specifically to episodes of the Trojan war.
Some scholars have also found fault in relating the "Laocoön" to the Michelangelo drawing of a torso, now at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.
"To my eye, the Michelangelo drawing does not bear a close resemblance to the torso of the Vatican Laocoön," said Katherine E. Welch, an associate professor at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts and an expert in Hellenistic and Roman imperial antiquities, in an e-mail message. "The latter is distinguished by a vigorous torsion or twist, which is lacking in the drawing."