I Fear Them When They Bear Gifts

The iconography of an interview with a Russian official

When Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (Сергей Викторович Лавров) was interviewed by Keir Simmons of NBC News this past week, his overall belligerence when discussing meetings between Presidents Trump and Putin (Дональд Джон Трамп, Владимир Владимирович Путин) during the G20, including references to kindergarten and trips to the bathroom was hardly unexpected.

Lavrov and his underling Sergey Kislyak (Сергей Иванович Кисляк) are perhaps best known here for their inappropriate-seeming Oval-Office meeting with Trump, during which they shared many chuckles with him, and he shared state secrets with them.

Kislyak, long seen by US intelligence as a spy and recruiter of spies for the country—which the Russian Federation naturally hotly denies—found himself at the center of a scandal due to his perceived chumminess with the Trump campaign and administration. Apparently, even seen through the lens of Russian ethics this violated norms enough to force him to tender his resignation this week. Indeed, as an American, I no longer possess the status to denigrate Russian moral standards, since at least for Kislyak, there were consequences.

Lavrov, despite his participation in the White House yuckfest, seems to not be going anywhere, at least for the time being. Rarely cordial in such interviews, his exaggerated testiness in this one is understandable in light of his having to bid one of his top officials and fellow Sergey adieu due to the optics this smug representative of the US press was rehashing yet again.

Nonetheless, even without the perspective provided by all of this specific context, a truculent, sarcastic interview given by a Russian official is very much par for the course, as I’ve already suggested. What struck me instead was the statuette placed on the table between interviewer and interviewee.

Although it’s strangely difficult to pin down solid information, this dimly lit, heavily curtained location appears to be a room within the The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation in Moscow (Министерство иностранных дел Российской Федерации, MFA).

In this oppressively monochrome environment, with unremarkably dressed men, and vague patterns, this one thing stands out, even silhouetted as it is in the filtered light of the sheer-draped window. A trio of human figures, posed dramatically within a triangular composition can be made out.

Although I’ve lengthened the process of semiosis here, the work was instantly recognizable to me: it’s a miniature of Laocoön and His Sons. The hero’s name is Λαοκόων in Ancient Greek. The statue is also called The Laocoön Group (Gruppo del Laocoonte in Italian), Pliny the Elder simply calls it The Laocoon (Loacoonte).

The sculpture it is based on is a massive marble one, unearthed in Rome in 1506 and thereafter displayed in the Belvedere Court Garden of the Vatican itself likely a copy of a Greek original lost to the ages. Napoleon Bonaparte did have it taken to the Louvre for a time, as he did with many works he admired during his reign. Some such spoils were repatriated, others remain in Paris. The Papal rights as the original looters of Laocoön and His Sons were upheld.¹

This appears to be the same work praised by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History of 77 AD as a masterwork (In Latin the author is Gaius Plinius Secundus, and his work is Naturalis Historia). Standing at around six feet, seven inches tall, the piece is made of at least seven interlocking pieces of marble—the total number is in doubt as some pieces are missing, and some have been restored—despite Pliny’s description of it as carved from a single piece (“ex uno lapide eum […]”). However, Pliny’s attribution of the piece to a trio of Rhodian artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodoros (Ἁγήσανδρος, Πολύδωρος, Αθηνόδωρος), is generally accepted. It is considered one of the finest examples of Hellenistic baroque sculpture—that is, while it is not from the Baroque period, but long before, it marshals many of the same formal elements to create a sense of motion, drama, and grandeur.

Indeed, since its excavation (as well as prior to its inhumation, according to Pliny) it has been admired by many, particularly artists, for its impressive virtuosity. Michelangelo Buonarroti was one of the first, if not the first, even going to the dig site to view the piece, which influenced him profoundly in his later work, including the Slave sculptures on the tomb of Pope Julius II, as well as several of the Ignudi and the figure of Haman in the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

It became an icon both of artistic excellence, as well as of human agony, particularly the rendering of Laocoön’s face, with its contorted features meant to reflect not just his own physical pain, but also the despair caused by the deaths of his two sons, which he ineffectively attempts to stay. The image of his eyes frantically peering heavenward in search of divine aid echoes through many a Passion of Christ and the martyrdoms of innumerable saints.

A number of copies of the work were made, beginning with Baccio Bandinelli’s commission by Pope Leo X, completed in 1525, and which now resides in Florence’s Ufizzi Gallery (Galleria degli Uffizi); every major art museum in Europe has one today. Woodcuts and small models also proliferated throughout the West, further expanding the piece’s influence among artists notably including Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, and William Blake.

In the 18th century, miniature versions were created, probably both in Italy and in France, in gilt bronze, and based on the predilections of the Russian Empire at the time, I’d imagine the one still extant in the MFA is French, and dates from this era.

One of the reasons we can date this one is the position of Laocoön’s right arm. When the piece was unearthed by the Italians, this was one of the sections that was missing. A contest was held to imagine the pose of the arm and reconstruct that portion of the statue. Michelangelo was alone in thinking it should be bent back, others feeling the position should be more heroic, pulling the serpent away and breaking out of the composition’s triangularity.

In 1906, a marble arm was found by Ludwig Pollak, an Austro-Czech classical archaeologist, antiquities dealer, and museum director, in a builder’s yard near the find site of the statue. He found it stylistically similar to Laocoön, and presented it to the Vatican Museums, where it sat in a warehouse like the lost Ark of the Covenant for nearly five decades. Finally, someone tried this arm, finding that the drill holes for a metal connecting post between the two sections aligned perfectly. As can be seen in the marble version above, the restored arm is bent, in the position Michelangelo predicted. The work the Russians possess shows the older, incorrect arm position.

So who is this Laocoön dude, and why have things gone so badly for him and his sons? He is part of the story of the Greek conquest of Troy, though he is not mentioned by Homer. A priest of Poseidon, he is one of the two Trojans who argue against taking a certain giant wooden horse built by the Greeks inside the city gates. The other is Cassandra (Κασσάνδρα), doomed to see what the future holds but to be believed by no one when she spoke of it.

In Virgil’s (Publius Vergilius Maro) Aeneid, Laocoön speaks the famous lines:

Equo ne credite, Teucri
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.

Do not trust the Horse, Teucrians,
Whatever it is, I fear the Danaans even when they bear gifts.

Teucrians and Danaans are Homeric collective names for the Trojans and Greeks, respectively. Although the stories vary, Athena, siding with the Greeks, typically sends a pair of serpents (which recalls Hera’s intended fate for Herakles) to punish Laocoön when he strikes the horse with his spear, and advocates for it to be burnt. For the Trojans (and Greeks), sons existed to give honor to their fathers’ names—providing them a small bit of immortality—so going after them is a pretty serious dick move. Even today, it smacks of Mob tactics, if nothing else.

When the snakes reach the trio, the Aeneid relates:

Ille simul manibus tendit divellere nodosperfusus sanie vittas atroque veneno, clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit: qualis mugitus, fugit cum saucius aramtaurus et incertam excussit cervice securim.

As he reached out his hands to tear at the coils, his hairband soaked with gore and black poison,
He then also raised dreadful cries to the heavens: like the bellowing of a wounded
Sacrificial bull that flees, shaking from its neck an ill-struck axe.

This section interestingly mirrors the description of Strife at the entrance to Hades also in the Aeneid: “[…] frenzied Strife,/ Her snaky tresses bound in a gore-smeared band.” (“[…] Discordia demens/ vipereum crinem vittis innexa cruenti.”). A vitta, which I’ve rendered as “hairband”, and “band” (since the inclusion of “tresses” made “hair” implicit in the latter case), is an element of priestly attire made of white woolen cloth, and its pollution with dark gore and venom would have been a striking image to the Romans. Other translators have used chaplet or fillet to translate the term, but I find these so archaic as to carry no meaning for the modern reader.

As an allegory, the death of Laocoön is ambiguous: was he punished for acting against the gods, or for being right? He presents a figure similar to Prometheus in this regard.

And now we return to the meaning of this statuette in the context of the interview. Is it there to cast the Russians as those who speak truth “though the heavens fall”, or as a warning to those who would tell a truth that is unpopular?

The reality is that the Russians probably saw no significance in placing this statue within the scene of the Foreign Minister’s interview other than as pure ostentation: something old and gold to display the power and wealth of their nation, caring about classical myth almost as little as we.


Notes

  1. Photograph by Livio Andronico, 2014.

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