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Restoration of the Laocoon Statue

When artworks have been harmed, or have deteriorated with age, or have somehow been broken, there is a natural desire to fix them... to undo the damage and restore works to their original states.  The general term for this process is restoration.  In theory restoration sounds idealistic and desirable, but in practice it is often highly controversial.

Arguments are most likely to rage when nobody knows exactly what a particular work of art looked like in its original condition.  The Laocoon statue from 2nd-century B.C.E. Greece is often given as the extreme example of restoration gone wild, and also of the tendency for restorations to mirror the prevailing fashions and tastes of a given period.

When the Laocoon sculpture was found in Italy in 1506, it was already damaged: the right arms of all three figures in the group were missing.  Since then, no fewer than six restorers have, so to speak, taken a crack at repairing the sculpture, with mixed results.  The first major restoration was done in 1532-33, at which time the figures were provided with outstretched arms.  Art historians generally agree that restorers of the Renaissance viewed themselves as creative "remodelers," rather than mere repair technicians, so they considered it entirely correct to do over a statue to their own satisfaction.  From that point the story becomes complicated.

New plaster arms were made in the 17th century, but they were superseded by marble arms attached in the 18th century.  During the 19th century earlier versions of the two sons' arms were replaced, as was a terra cotta version of the 16th century arm made for Laocoon.  To satisfy the prudish sensibilities of the 19th century, "fig leaves" were added to cover the men's nakedness.  Finally, in 1954 a thorough study of the statue was undertaken, and all the restorations were removed in 1960.  As of that date, classical experts feel the Laocoon is as close as possible to the sculptors' original intent.  Naturally, the 21st century may have different ideas.

Source:  Living With Art, Fifth Edition

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