a talk by Sarah Blake McHam, Rutgers University
On January 14, 1506, a discovery shook the artistic and antiquarian worlds of Italy. After decades of digging up unidentifiable fragments, a major over-life-size statue group was unearthed in Rome that was both almost complete and autographed. The subject matter, Laocoőn and his two sons entangled by murderous sea serpents, was unusual enough to be readily recognized as the doomed Trojans Virgil had described (Aeneid 2.201-27). The sculpture’s unusual subject and compelling interpretation allowed it to be readily matched to the Roman Pliny the Elder’s lengthy laudatory description in his Natural History (c. 77 AD).
If Pliny’s notice confirmed the sculpture was the Laocoön, then its discovery had the reciprocal effect of corroborating Pliny’s accuracy and reliability. As this paper will show, the Natural History solidified its status as a favorite reference source throughout the sixteenth century. The demonstrated unimpeachable nature of Pliny’s testimony influenced period developments in both Italian art and theory.
Sarah Blake McHam is a Distinguished Professor of Art History at Rutgers University. She specializes in Italian Renaissance Art, particularly the sculpture of Florence, Venice, and Padua, and has published several books and many articles on these subjects. She did her undergraduate training at Smith College and her MA and PhD degrees at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She has long been interested in the influence of the classical tradition in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy, a fascination that spurred her recent book on Pliny the Elder and the Artistic Culture of Renaissance Italy: The Legacy of the Natural History, published by Yale University Press in 2013, which has been named one of the Times Literary Supplement’s best books of 2013.
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