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.
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.”
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.