The Italian Almanac

Laocoon

Italian Art - April 27

It is one of the masterpieces of ancient Greek sculpture. But could the Laoco÷n really be a fake by Michelangelo? It's true that Michelangelo was a brilliant forger. And it's true that he was obsessed with snakes, with serpentine twisting limbs, with emotional extremes and, most of all, with being bound.

Michelangelo was in Rome at the time the Laoco÷n was found, working for Pope Julius II, who had commissioned the 30-year-old to sculpt his tomb to stand in the middle of St Peter's. Rome at this moment was excavating its ancient grandeur, figuratively and literally. Julius, the warrior pope who named himself after the greatest Roman of them all, was building new roads and palaces that could compete with the colossal remains that brooded over the city.

When Michelangelo and his rival Sangallo were called to see the latest find from Nero's palace - believed at that time to be the Baths of Titus - they recognised it as just such a lost masterpiece. Here, Sangallo saw at once, was the sculpture the Roman writer Pliny the Elder calls the greatest work of art in the world: a gory representation of Laoco÷n and his sons and the "wonderful clasping coils" of the snakes that came out of the sea and killed them.

Pliny credits Laoco÷n to three Greek sculptors, Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros, all from Rhodes. Their names still appear attached to the sculpture in every history of western art. Yet now, this supreme survival of the ancient world has, purportedly, been exposed as the work of that talented pasticheur, Michelangelo. It sounds, at first, utterly deranged. Yet Lynn Catterson told the Italian Academy at Columbia University she has a "mountain of evidence" proving Michelangelo faked the ancient sculpture and arranged for it to be discovered so he could profit from its sale.