Art and Architecture, Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Philosophy

Read an Excerpt from “The God Behind the Marble” by Alice Goff

In her new book, The God Behind the Marble, Alice Goff relates a history of Germans’ attempts to transform society through art in an age of revolution. Considering art as an instrument of ideology that could act as a beacon of freedom, she follows a variety of art objects through conflicts over their ownership, interpretation, conservation, and exhibition. In the following excerpt, Goff invites us to imagine ourselves as the Laocoön–an emotionally charged marble work depicting a violent struggle between a man, his two sons, and sea snakes. From here, she unpacks key points in the life of the Laocoön and poses philosophical questions about the connection between art, ancient stone, and contemporary society.

A red book cover with a marble pattern and large white text that reads “THE GOD BEHIND THE MARBLE.”

[Adapted from Chapter 1]

Imagine that you are the Laocoön, an ancient marble statue group, just over six and a half feet tall, made by a trio of Rhodian sculptors around the first century BCE. At your center a Trojan priest writhes in the throes of a deadly encounter with sea snakes. On your right and left sides his sons are caught up in a tangle of snake and limb, one stepping to get free, the other succumbing to a bite in the chest. Virgil tells the story in the Aeneid as a scene of retribution, depicting punishment from the wrathful gods for warning of the Greek attack on Troy. Pliny the Elder hails you as “a work to be set above all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced.”

The year is 1797, and you are approaching your three hundredth anniversary as resident of the Vatican sculpture collections in the Belvedere Courtyard. Your critical reception during this long tenure has been notably more dynamic. Pliny’s endorsement is a source of your celebrity, but it also introduced a challenge for your interpreters. Since you were excavated in Rome in 1506, scholars and critics have fought to reconcile the claim of your superior beauty with the horrifying violence and desperate anguish carved into your marble body. In the last half of the eighteenth century, these efforts were centered around the problem of your silence. That your central figure, Laocoön the priest, with his head tossed back and mouth ajar, does not appear to be screaming is a deliberate artistic choice, the leading aesthetic writers of the day agree. They disagree, however, about why. For the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, your silent suffering is a mark of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur,” the virtue that was for him fundamental to the ideal of beauty in ancient Greek art. For Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, your silent suffering is a mark of the constraints of the sculptor who, in contrast to the poet, cannot dare to represent “deforming violence” without repulsing the compassions of the viewer. At stake in these debates is not only the matter of your proper interpretation, but the extent of your aesthetic power, and the power of works of ancient art in general to bear on the moral constitution of their human beholders. Your suffering, Winckelmann wrote, “pierces our soul; but we wish we could bear this suffering like this great man.”

In 1797, however, your silence in the face of struggle becomes less a source of your power and more of a liability. On May 11, a corps of French soldiers and Italian artisans remove you from your niche in the Belvedere, pack you into a crate, and load you into a cart bound for the port at Livorno. From there you set sail, first to Marseille and then up the rivers Rhône and Saône toward Paris. The trip takes fourteen arduous months. Your right arm, a terracotta prosthetic of early modern origin, is left behind, having been deemed too incongruous with the rest of your white marble surface to warrant exhibition in Europe’s newest cultural capital, so you arrive in Paris with much celebration in 1798 as a fragment. You are outfitted with a new plaster arm before your debut in front of the French public in the Louvre in 1800, where you are among a lengthy roster of stars in Europe’s first blockbuster exhibition. In 1815, when the Napoleonic regime falls, you are loaded back onto a cart to be restored to the Belvedere. But the return journey is not without mishap. On November 23, 1815, your conveyance slips on the ice and overturns on an alpine pass at Mont Cenis, exacerbating an old fissure in your abdomen. You arrive in Rome in January 1816 as a “famous invalid,” and are met with throngs of well-wishers lining the streets. Here you are reunited with your previously abandoned arm. A team of restorers will patch you back together before installing you in the Belvedere Courtyard from whence you had been taken two decades earlier.

Imagining oneself as the Laocoön may seem like an absurd exercise. It is, however, a device perfectly at home in art criticism at the time of the Laocoön’s displacement. In the eighteenth century, the figurative animation of ancient sculpture helped writers to map the boundaries of sensibility, to define the laws of beauty, and to imagine the history of human culture. The Laocoön was at the center of these efforts. It challenged its eighteenth-century viewers to find the height of artistic achievement in the bald representation of physical pain. To meet this challenge, its interpreters brought the science of the living body into an increasingly anthropological aesthetics, oriented toward a fuller understanding of human moral, social, and political life. To grasp the terms of the statue’s scream was to understand the workings of ancient art, but also the powers and limits of human emotion, and the possibility of their representation. “Sculpture is truth,” Johann Gottfried Herder wrote in his treatise on the subject, significantly subtitled Some Observations on Shape and Form from Pygmalion’s Creative Dream. It was to be understood not by the abstracting calculation of the eye but by the physical comradeship of the hand, which is sensitive to the pulse of the veins, the weight of the limbs, and the surge of the nerves as they responded to the bite of the snake. “A sculpture before which I can kneel can embrace me, it can become my friend and companion.”

However, in the face of displacement, this exercise of imaginative embodiment yields new ends. To imagine oneself as the Laocoön in 1797 would have made visceral a tense relationship between the statue’s power as an object of interpretation and its vulnerability as a material object, available to be boxed up, shipped off, and reexhibited in new climates and for new purposes. For all its capacity to embody the nobility of resistance in the face of adversity, in 1797, as a consequence of Napoleon’s Italian campaigns, the Laocoön became a spoil of war. Italian witnesses reacted with indignation, and according to French sources, a group of Romans had even attempted to assassinate officials tasked with the requisitions. The French press, however, did not shy away from publicizing the act, chronicling the details of its caravan’s progress to Paris, reassuring readers of the great precautions undertaken to protect these fragile objects and at the same time inviting them to envision the dangers of the journey. To imagine ourselves as the Laocoön in 1797 requires that we feel the intimate materiality of the act of displacement: the careful handling “in such a way that no parts [of the sculpture] are jostled,” the cases “cushioned around the exterior with straw to protect from shocks,” the convoy of twelve carts “followed by additional vehicles carrying extra parts in case of a puncture en route.” Perhaps our identification with the violence and pain inherent in the subject of the work is amplified by knowledge of the violence and pain of its despoliation. But each bump also suggests the impossibility of identifying with the sculpture at all. This was not a prisoner of war with alternatives to struggle or surrender, but a work of art at the mercy of the sentient. It is not one of us, and we are not it. A new answer to the question that consumed Lessing, Winckelmann, and their contemporaries becomes apparent in the context of the work’s displacement. Why doesn’t the Laocoön scream? Because it is made of stone.

If, on its pedestal in the courtyard of the Belvedere, the Laocoön had conveyed to Winckelmann the moral nobility of the human soul, what would it convey once it had been transformed into a piece of cargo? Joining the long history of visual representations of the sculpture group since its excavation was a new genre of illustration: Laocoön in a box.

Artists and writers who witnessed these events struggled to make sense of the boxed Laocoön and its fellow captives in various ways. Some emphasized that the ideal beauty of ancient art operated independently from whatever unfortunate calamities might befall its material base. In this line of argument, too much concern for art objects—as opposed to art— was symptomatic of a now discredited antiquarian classicism, which was overly fixated on where a work was rather than what it meant. Others embraced the irony of the scene, exploiting the opposition between object and ideal as a form of antirevolutionary or anti-imperial critique. Where the French claimed to liberate art, they had in fact kidnapped it, exposing the egalitarian commitments of republicanism as two-faced rapacious shams. Others sought to establish the relationship between object and meaning on new grounds, insisting that a work’s location and the fact of its displacement were fundamental, rather than coincidental, to understanding both its contemporary and its historical importance. Common among all responses was a shared realization: the despoliation of Italy’s antiquities challenged the reigning affinity between the bodies of people and the bodies of ancient sculpture, making clear the powerful vitality of the former and the tragic lifelessness of the latter. This was more than simply a matter of irony. Art’s relevance to contemporary society had been premised on the correspondence between human flesh and ancient stone.

With the Laocoön and its neighbors bobbing their way toward Paris, the task of figuring out what art meant to personal and collective life became inseparable from the question of what happens to a work of art in a time of war. As subsequent chapters will explore, at stake in these questions was how much the vibrant field of aesthetic and art- historical criticism had to offer to the administration of art in public life, and in turn what the administration of art could offer to the stability and morality of the German political order. While historians have long detailed the ways in which German intellectuals of this period addressed the question, “What can art do in a time of political crisis?” the French despoliation of the Italian peninsula made the question, “What can art not do?” just as urgent.

Photograph of Alice Goff sitting on stone steps. She is wearing blue jeans, a black jacket, floral shirt, and clear-framed glasses.

Alice Goff is assistant professor of history and the College at the University of Chicago.

The God Behind the Marble is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.