cave of tiberius: great grotto its got fragments

The cave of Tiberius. Twelve thousand fragments in an Emperor’s sculpture gallery made a jigsaw puzzle for archaeologists. 1957. With every scoop of the shovel, the archaeologists became more certain that they had located what had once been the gallery of a collector of wealth and refinement. And the evidence of ancient authors, checked against their findings, left little doubt in their minds that one master of the grotto had been none other than Tiberius Caesar.

—The Laocoön group, in marble, was found on 14 January 1506 near the “Seven Halls” on the Esquiline Hill (Domus Aurea area). In his Natural History (XXXVI, 37), Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., wrote of this statue that it was the work of the Rhodes sculptors Hagesandros, Athanodoros and Polydoros, that it stood in the palace of the emperor Titus, and that it was to be preferred to all other depictions of a similar subject in painting or in bronze. When it was discovered, the statue was recognized from the ancient writer’s description. Julius II purchased it on 23 March 1506, and had it brought here.
Laocoön, the priest of Apollo, and his two sons are locked in the coils of two serpents, on the steps of an altar. Laocoön’s chest rises and swells as he vainly attempts to tear away the head of the serpent that is about to bite him on the hip. The other serpent has already sunk its fangs into the side of the younger son, who collapses in agony, while the elder son attempts to free himself from its coils. Virgil describes the episode in detail—Read More:

On January 14, 1506, the Laocoon sculpture, lost since antiquity, was unearthed from the ruins of the house of the Emperor Titus on the Esquiline hill in Rome, where Pliny had said it stood. Since its discovery it has been a treasure of the Vatican collection. The scholar Margarete Bieber called the Vatican Laocoon, “probably the most widely discussed work of sculpture which we possess from antiquity.” Poets extolled the sculpture, and it was studied by Michelangelo, whose work was influenced by its muscular passion. Lessing and Goethe wrote essays about it. William Blake made a print after it, in which he transformed Laocoon and his two sons into “Jehovah and his two sons, Satan and Adam, as they were copied from the Cherubim of Solomon’s Temple by three Rhodians and applied to the National Fact or History of Ilium.”

Ganymede statue in the Vatican Museum which assumed greater interest after its related find at Sperlonga in the Cave of Tiberius. Image:

The magnificent statue in the Vatican was generally accepted as the original work of the Rhodian masters. Now this inscription was found at Sperlonga bearing the names of the acknowledged authors of the Laocoon. And near the inscription were found pieces of statuary which clearly had belonged to figures in dynamic attitudes. Two life sized torsos were recovered and a heroic leg which alone stands seven feet high. Had the original Laocoon been found?

The Vatican statue bore no signature, although few classical originals did. Could the Vatican work be merely a copy, as was so common in Imperial Rome? This sort of speculation gained international attention for the discoveries at Sperlonga and started eager disputes among the scholars. Nor was the notoriety of the discovery lost on the citizens of Sperlonga. Foreseeing a lucrative tourist trade, they threatened to blow up the grotto and all it contained if a single fragment were removed from it. To implement their threat they dug a trench about the place. The archaeologists sought and received police protection.

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