Peter Paul Rubens Drawings of classic sculpture. Laocoon Group


Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana


1608 - 1612


375 x 482 mm



historical period


Exhibit Artwork

Artwork Details

The famous group sculpture of Laocoon depicts the Trojan priest who was killed along with his two sons strangled by snakes.

During the Trojan war he had warned his fellow citizens not to let the horse, which was left at the gates by the Greeks, enter the city of Troy. The horse that seemed empty was actually a hiding place for Ulysses and other enemies who then succeeded to attack and win over the Trojans.
The goddess Athena, who was on Greeks side, wanted to punish the priest to death killing also his two sons who had rushed to help their father.

The marble sculpture was described by Pliny, who attributed the work to three sculptors of Rhodes; Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydoros who made it between 40 and 20 B.C. for the palace of emperor Titus.

The sculpture was found in Rome on January 14, 1506 during an excavation in Felice de Fredis’s vineyard on the hill of Oppio, not far from Domus Aurea.
The discovery attracted artist including Michelangelo and Giuliano da Sangallo, who wanted to study and copy the ancient marble statue. The strong expression of pain, the pose and gestures of the characters but also their anatomy and shape made a notable impact on the 16th-century school of art and it had a great influence on the artists of the following generations.

In fact, copying an ancient piece of art was considered an indispensable exercise for aspiring artists at least until the mid-19th century. For this reason, many young artists came to Italy, where they could study the ancient works and the masters of the Renaissance.

Among these students was Peter Paul Rubens, who visited Rome twice between 1601 and 1608 to study the works of Raphael and Michelangelo and ancient sculptures including Laocoon. Rubens made a few drawings inspired by the sculpture, of which seven have remained and they are part of the folder called “Piccolo Resta”.
This folder contains nine drawings by the Flemish artist and it has been preserved at Biblioteca Amborsiana since 1684, when Sebastiano Resta donated it to Accademia del Disegno in Milan.
Rubens drew Laocoon from many perspectives and integrally only in some parts. The drawing in question here represents the front side of the sculpture. The paint strokes are soft and subtle still managing to represent the anatomical details of the figures, such as the priest’s vigorous chest and the desperate expressions of the three figures.
The drawing of the father is more defined than the two sons, executed with faster strokes. The layout is more academic than the other drawings, not only because of the frontal perspective but also for the minimal details of the work, although he sketched some parts, like the son’s foot.
The position of Laocoon’s arm is high and his figure covers part of the son on the left which suggests that Rubens observed the sculpture by positioning himself slightly to the right.

The Ambrosiana institute also owns a plaster cast of the ancient relief by Milanese sculptor Leone Leoni who made it while he was in Spain at the service of Charles V.

The copy then arrived in Milan to the famous house of Omeoni, close to his home and in 1674 it was donated to Ambrosiana by Bartolomeo Calchi, the owner of the house where Leoni lived.
The Laocoon was a perfect addition to the collections of the Lombard institution especially because cardinal Federico Borromeo himself, the founder of the institution, much appreciated the way in which the artwork expresses human feelings.

Artist Details

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Rubens was born in Siegen, Germany in 1587 but his family moved to Antwerp when he was only two years old where he trained as a painter.

Rubens attended several workshops before meeting Otto van Veen who became his most important teacher. In 1598 the artist joined the guild of San Luca and two years after he left for Italy. He stayed in Venice, Mantua, Florence, Genoa and Rome where he copied the works of great master for his patron Vincenzo Gonzaga. In Mantua he became the duke’s court painter.

He stayed in Rome between 1601 and 1602 and he also left several of his works there such as the Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (Rome, Galleria Borghese) and Martyrdom of St. Sebastion (Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica) where you can already see the influence of the 16th-century Venetian painting.

In 1603 Rubens stayed in Madrid at the house of Philip III of Spain on a diplomatic mission on behalf of Vincenzo Gonzaga, studying the royal collections and copying the works of Titian. The following year he returned to Mantua and traveled to Rome and Genoa, where he made various portraits for the local aristocracy, such as the equestrian portrait of Giovanni Carlo Doria (Genoa, Palazzo Spinola) or the portrait of Marquise Brigida Spinola Doria (Washington, National Gallery) both from 1606.

At the end of 1608 he returned to Antwerp and in 1609 archdukes Albert and Isabella appointed him their court painter. He married Isabella Brant and opened a very successful workshop which was often involved on important decorative tasks such as the painting of the thirty-nine canvases for the ceiling of the Jesuit church of Antwerp (1620) which unfortunately were later destroyed in a fire in 1718, or the decoration of the gallery of the Luxembourg Palace with the Stories of Maria de’ Medici. This commission was made in 1621 by Maria de’ Medici, Queen of France and widow of Henry IV. He finished the work in 1625.

After the death of his wife in 1626, Rubens traveled again to France, Spain, Holland and England where he decorated the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall (London, 1629 – 1634).

In 1630 he returned to Antwerp and got married again while continuing his artistic activities; he made several portraits of his wife and children, he worked on tapestry drawings with the stories of Achilles (1630 – 1632) and he decorated the hunting lodge of Torre de la Parada near Madrid with the Metamorphoses of Ovid (1637 – 1638).

Rubens, who was also a notable collector of artworks, died in Antwerp in 1640.

Collection Details

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Pinacoteca Ambrosiana was established in 1618 by cardinal Federico Borromeo, when he donated his art collection to the Ambrosiana library, which was founded by him as well in 1607. The building was named after the patron saint of Milan, St. Ambrose.

It was the first museum in the world to be open to the public. The history of the Pinacoteca and the library goes hand in hand, as this was also the first library to be open to the public. The book collection includes prestigious volumes, among them Petrarch’s Virgil with illuminated manuscript by Simone Martini and Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, donated in 1637 by Galeazzo Arconati.

In fact, cardinal’s plan was to display art with its symbology and evocative power to serve Christian values reaffirmed by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which were threatened by the diffusion of the Protestant reformation.

The academy was added in 1637 and transferred to Brera in 1776. It was supposed to be an artistic school of painting, sculpture and architecture which would allow the students to learn from the great models of the history.

The building was designed by architect Fabio Mangone (1587-1629) and it is located in the city center. The space is expanded over 1500 square meters and divided into twenty-two rooms. The cardinal illustrated the works and the objects himself in his book in Latin, Museum (1625), which still today represents the main nucleus of the Pinacoteca.

Through commissions and purchases Federico Borromeo’s collection grew with the paintings of Lombard and Tuscan schools, among them works by Raphael, Correggio and Bernardino Luini and casts from Leone Leoni’s workshop, arriving to a total of 3000 artworks of which 300 are exhibited.

There are great masterpieces such as the Portrait of a Musician by Leonardo Da Vinci (1480), Madonna del Padiglione by Botticelli (1495), the cartoon for the School of Athens by Raphael (before 1510), the Holy Family with St. Anne and Young St. John by Bernardino Luini (1530) and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Jacopo Bassano (1547).

A great part of the collection is dedicated to landscape and to still life, because the Cardinal saw the nature as an important tool raising the human mind into the Divine. For this reason, Federico collected Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and the miniature paintings by Jan Brueghel and Paul Brill.

After the cardinal’s death the collection was enriched with the donations of the artworks from 15th and 16th centuries, such as the frescoes by Bramantino and Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen’s marble self-portraits. Museo Settala, one of the first museums in Italy, founded by canonical Manfredo Settala (1600-1680), was joined to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in 1751. The museum is a sort of science history museum with a variety of curiosities of all time.

During the period of growth, the museum required some structural and architectural changes as well, including the expansion of the exhibition halls between 1928 and 1931, which were decorated with 13th century miniature motifs of Ambrosian codes, and between 1932 and 1938 a new series of restorations was implemented under the guidance of Ambrogio Annoni. The renowned readjustment in 1963 was curated by architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni and the museum excursus was concluded with the current reorganization between 1990 and 1997.