On Satyrs, Serpents, and Laocoon

I find this to be VERY interesting … Art Daily (one of my favourite daily reads, by the way) today informs us in a couple of excerpts:

On 11 June 2010 Sotheby’s New York will offer for sale a rediscovered antiquity from the collection of one of the greatest arts patrons of all time – Lorenzo de’ Medici. Three Satyrs Fighting a Serpent, Roman Imperial, circa 1st century A.D., is the only ancient sculpture confirmed to have been in ‘il Magnifico’s’ collection and it is estimated to sell for $300/500,000* when it is offered in Sotheby’s spring sale of Antiquities. Letters written to Lorenzo by his agents reveal that the marble group was excavated in Rome in early 1489 from the same location where several ancient sculptures, including the renowned Apollo Belvedere, had recently been discovered. Following Lorenzo’s death, the satyr group disappeared for 350 years until its reappearance in a private collection on the Dalmatian coast (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) circa 1857. While the work was published in the late 1930s and a plaster cast created (now at the University Museum in Graz), the whereabouts of the original ancient group were unknown for several decades, until a Sotheby’s representative happened upon it earlier this year in an Austrian Family Collection. It had descended in the family of the collector who had acquired it circa 1857 and they had become unaware of its acclaim. The present group will be on view at Sotheby’s New York from 5 -10 June, prior to its sale on 11 June 2010.

Lorenzo de’ Medici played a pivotal role in the Italian Renaissance, particularly in the renewal of interest in antiquity, and gathered a significant collection of ancient art. Recently published letters dating to 1489 indicate that Three Satyrs Fighting a Serpent was excavated from the gardens of the convent of S. Lorenzo in Panisperna on the Viminal Hill in Rome in early 1489. The marble group left Rome for Florence, destined for Lorenzo’s collection, on the morning of 13 February, packed in a crate and strapped to a mule. In a letter from the same day, Lorenzo’s agent describes the group of satyrs as “three beautiful fauns on a small marble base, all three bound together by a great snake… and even if one cannot hear their voices they seem to breathe, cry out and defend themselves with wonderful gestures; that one in the middle you see almost falling down and expiring.” (L. Fusco and G. Corti, Lorenzo de Medici: Collector and Antiquarian, Cambridge, 2006).

So far, so good … now here’s a photo of the group (via Art Daily; it doesn’t seem to be up at Sotheby’s site yet):

Now I know what you’re thinking … that looks an awful lot like:

Wikimedia Commons

Then the Art Daily item goes on to say (emphasis mine):

Lorenzo de Medici created an informal academy where he encouraged his court artists, including the Renaissance masters Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo Buonarroti, to study from classical antiquity. Striking evidence of the influence of Three Satyrs Fighting a Serpent on artists in Lorenzo’s circle can be found in at least two works: Michelangelo’s marble relief entitled “Battle of the Centaurs” circa 1490 1492, now at the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, and Pollaiuolo’s engraving “Battle of the Nudes” circa 1489, the finest impression of which is now in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Here’s the ‘Battle of the Centaurs’ thing:

Wikimedia Commons

via Sotheby’s to Sell Rediscovered Antiquity from The Collection of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

The most ‘obvious’ link is that ‘hand grasping behind the head’ pose, in the Satyrs piece, the Centaur relief, and, interestingly enough, in the Laocoon (I’m sure folks can see others as well). Back in 2005, we  mentioned Lynn Catterson’s theory that the Laocoon was faked by Michelangelo and wondered ‘aloud’ a year or so later at the apparent lack of scholarly reaction to the theory. Given that the discovery of the Laocoon was in (we are told) 1506, and with  this item (and this predates it by quite a bit) I think we need to wonder aloud again …

UPDATE (a few moments later):

Just came across this nice pdf of an item from 2005:

6 thoughts on “On Satyrs, Serpents, and Laocoon

  1. I should add … there probably is scholarly reaction; it just hasn’t received press coverage.

  2. This is why I love your site and follow you on twitter. Oh, and I know nothing of hockey, but really loved the Homeric commentary for that great battle on the ice.

  3. Oh, there was plenty of scholarly reaction – most of it unprintable, and virtually all of it negative. Only the journalists seemed to buy into it.

  4. Tx for further info. beyond the NYTimes report I sent you. A very interesting case, esp. w/ what else those guys were up to.

    Btw, why forge Laocoon & not just make & sell it?

    1. I missed the NY Times coverage (at the bottom of another piece); folks who want to track that one down can look at:

      … on the forgery issue, I think the ‘art market’ at the time was rather more hungry for the ancient pieces than new ones; besides, there was probably more money (for Michelangelo) and prestige (for Lorenzo) with an ancient claim …

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