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Critical Response: Renaissance Antiquity Discoveries

Updated on April 24, 2012

In the section, Discoveries, in the work ‘Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the making of Renaissance Culture[1]’ by Leonard Barkan many different pieces of art are discussed. Many pieces of antiquity are known to us today through letters, reports, and overall documentation at the time of the Renaissance. These antiquities were discovered during this era and will forever be tied to the individuals that discovered them and wrote about their wonder. The Apollo Belvedere was discovered in September 1514 and is documented in a letter by Filippo Strozzi, the Tiber was found in the 1440s by Poggio Bracciolini but he returned it to its original spot because of crowds overexcitement only to be rediscovered by Grossino in 1512, and the Laocoon’s discovery in January of 1506 and immeditate sale to Pope Juilus II put its existence on the historical timeline. There are several more instances of antiquities receiving as much attention as these works throughout this section of Barkan’s piece. He moves the reader quite well through his piece. He first introduces the works that were found and reveals the excerpts of the stories of discoveries to elaborate on the details of each piece. We see the importance of detailed documentation and reports. Many of the antiquities would not have continued to be as valued as they are without these detailed recognitions.

Barkan elaborates upon the importance and the prominence of the discovery of the Laocoon and how in a sense it was and continues to be the poster child of Renaissance discovered antiquities. The account of its find is best described in the words of Barkan, “The Florentine Sangallo family is appropriating Roman antiquities, while the presence of Michelangelo has all the making of a great artist-myth.[2]” That truly is the case. When we read the accounts of these finds it is almost surreal. Barkan goes on to discuss the neglect that the statue befell within its lost years. He also stresses that even with the absence of Laocoon’s right arm adds to the narrative that once existed. He then goes on to speak about the debates of poet-observers. There were poems written about the piece and it is debated whether they should be included with the piece or if no new interpretation should be permanently pinned to it. He also goes on to discuss how it as found itself intertwined in politics; the French government against the pope. This leads to the question of recreating antiquities and including pieces that once were present but have been removed over the course of time. Barkan seems to be at a standstill of questions.

I agree very much with Barkan’s statement that the Laocoon is not unique. However, it is a very good example of how Renaissance artists handled excavations at the time and how individuals will always find something to debate about. I do not believe that works such as this should be re-created. This leaves room for error and the piece could end of conveying a very different point than originally intended. Also, the multiple times that the right arm of the Laocoon is up for debate. Barkan starts to question the motives of Renaissance individuals and their “need” to restore damaged antiquities. I do not believe that these individuals should strive so hard to finish something that they did not themselves start. Thankfully, the individuals that did recreate the Laocoon have the their name placed with the recreation and not the original. The recreations I do not necessarily have a problem with as long as names are kept sepreate, but I believe that the problem lies with artists adding directly onto original pieces. In the case of Laocoon’s right arm, the competitions to restore it were completely unnecessary. In addition, most of the arm pieces that were made for the Laocoon did not even last. The final arm that was made even had to cut back part of the original shoulder; defacing further than it already was or in the words of Barkan, “mutilation.”

Overall, Barkan brings up multiple concerns about reconstruction and reworking of antiquities. It comes down to the motives of the Renaissance individuals in their construction and reworking. Was it for personal gain or for the true concern of the damaged piece? If reconstructed differently than what it may of originally looked like the narrative would have completely changed. For instance, they found the elbow of the Laocoon much later on and realized that it resembled a very different arm than they had tried to recreate. The best solution is to just leave well enough alone and honor and preserve what is left of the antiquity instead of mutilating it for personal curiosity.


[1] Leonard Barkan, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the making of Renaissance Culture (London: Yale University Press, 2006), 1-17.

[2] Leonard Barkan, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the making of Renaissance Culture (London: Yale University Press, 2006), 3.

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