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superseded by marble arms attached in the 18th century.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
Source: Living With Art, Fifth Edition