Trojan Treasure; Street Crèche; Swiss Guard Myths

500th Anniversary Looms Over Laocoon

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JAN. 12, 2006 ( The year 2006 represents a great Jubilee of sorts for art historians. This Saturday marks the 500th anniversary of the rediscovery of the Laocoon group, one of the most renowned sculptures of the ancient world.

Virgil immortalized Laocoon in the «Aeneid.» The Trojan priest of Neptune, Laocoon, when faced with the great wooden horse left by the Greeks outside the walls of Troy, issued one of the most famous warnings in the history of literature. «Men of Troy, trust not the horse! Whatever it be, I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts,» later shortened to the popular dictum: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Laocoon paid dearly for his acumen. As he performed the ritual sacrifice at the altars accompanied by his two young sons, a pair of huge sea serpents «with blazing eyes suffused with blood and fire» rose out of the water and attacked the family. Before the eyes of the horrified Trojans, they all died as Laocoon «strains his hands to burst the knots» and «lifts to heaven hideous cries.»

His sculptural representation, as well as his literary personage, amassed great fame. Pliny the Elder, Roman statesman and scholar, wrote about the work in Book XXXVI of the «Natural Histories.» He described a statue of Laocoon from the first century A.D., carved by three Greek sculptors, Hagesander, Polydorus and Athenodorus, in the house of Titus in Rome. He lauded the work as «superior to any painting and any bronze.»

Renaissance artists were familiar with Pliny’s book and knew the names and descriptions of some of the most important works of the ancient world. The statue itself had been lost long centuries past and only Pliny’s encomium kept its memory alive.

Until 1506. Francesco da Sangallo, son of Michelangelo’s close friend Giuliano da Sangallo, was eyewitness to the events of Jan. 14. Francesco recounts that Pope Julius II sent his father to look over some recently unearthed statues and «since Michelangelo Buonarroti was always to be found at our house, my father wanted him to come along, too.»

When they arrived at the hole in the ground where the work lay semi-buried in leaves, roots and dirt, Giuliano exclaimed, «That is the Laocoon, which Pliny mentions.»

Hailed throughout Europe as the most exciting find of the era, the statue attracted many potential buyers. Pope Julius succeeded in purchasing the work and then made an unusual but momentous decision. Instead of bestowing the work on his own family, the Della Rovere, he gave Laocoon to the Vatican so as to enrich the patrimony of the Church. For most of 500 years now, it has graced the octagonal courtyard of the Vatican Museums.

For Michelangelo, the rediscovery of Laocoon was earth-shattering. Fresh from his groundbreaking work on the «Pietà» and the «David,» the 31-year-old Florentine sculptor was in Rome for the most promising commission of his career. He was to build a tomb for Julius II: a free-standing, three-story monument, covered with 40 sculptures by Michelangelo’s hand.

Michelangelo, sculptural prodigy, was profoundly moved by the sight of Laocoon. He called it «a singular miracle of art in which we should grasp the divine genius of the craftsman rather than try to make an imitation of it.»

Although he would never complete the papal tomb, Michelangelo used that revolutionary triumph of sculpture as inspiration for his greatest painting, the vault of the Sistine Chapel, begun two years after the finding of Laocoon.

Close observers can see the form of Laocoon represented several times in the ceiling, seen from different perspectives. One more reminder of the Greeks’ deep impact on Rome.

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Nativity of the Humble

Jan. 5, on the vigil of Epiphany, Benedict XVI reprised another Roman tradition established by Pope John Paul II. Leaving the grand halls of the Apostolic Palace, he went next door to the little neighborhood around Vatican City to visit the Nativity scene made by Rome’s street sweepers.

It is an Italian custom to go from church to church visiting the Nativity scenes during the Christmas season. But why would the Pope select theirs?

I asked the sanitation department office in charge of the area near the Vatican, and officials answered that they had simply asked the Holy Father to visit.

In 1972, a young sanitation worker, Giuseppe Ianni, conceived of the idea of building a Nativity scene for the recreation offices of the local street sweepers. Assisted by dozens of his colleagues, Ianni built the large cavern that today contains some 200 figures, 95 miniature houses and 30 feet of canals, rivers and aqueducts.

The mortar cavern is embedded with more than 1,200 bits of stone, some from faraway countries, others from little Italian villages and many are from great pilgrimage sites such as Santiago de Compostela.

One special piece of wood graces the work. Father Ibrahim Faltas, custodian of the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, donated a piece of olive wood from the place where Jesus was born. The wood was used to make the doors on the replica grotto containing the Holy Family.

Ianni and the sanitation department wrote to Pope Paul VI, asking him to visit their crèche, and in 1974, he came. John Paul II visited the crèche a total of 24 times from 1979 until 2002. In 2003, when he was unable to go over to the offices, the workers brought a miniature model to the Holy Father for his blessing.

Mother Teresa also paid a visit to the scene in 1996, today commemorated by a mural painting with a poetic dedication.

When I went to see it, the room was packed with tourist groups, religious sisters and families all lining up to see the Nativity. Children were delighted by the churning windmills and the running waterfalls, while their parents noted the donkeys carrying foodstuffs and pointed out the laundry hanging on lines, dripping water.

One Italian observed that there was so much activity that the actual Nativity scene seemed to take second place. Indeed the grotto is placed obliquely in the composition, under the houses, hills and waterfalls. Bright light emanating from the cave provides the only indication of its importance.

Perhaps this comment offers a clue to understanding the Pope’s faithful visits. The labors of the sanitation worker are humble and rarely appreciated. He passes unseen, cleaning up after the crowds have gone home, collecting trash while the Romans sleep.

Was not the birth of Jesus like this? In the heart of night, as Mary bore Jesus, the rest of the world lay sleeping. While the people of Bethlehem plied their trades and went about their business, the Savior of the world lay in a humble manger, visited by a few shepherds.

Thus a visit to the street sweepers’ crèche makes for a fitting tradition to commemorate the birth of Christ.

* * *

No Clowning

This seems to be the month of 500th anniversaries in the Vatican. On Jan. 22, 1506, one hundred fifty Swiss soldiers arrived in St. Peter’s Square to receive the blessing of Pope Julius II and take up service as his personal guard. Thus began the tradition of the Swiss Guard.

Many celebrations are in the works for the 500th anniversary of the Guard. Sergeant Christian-Roland Marcel Richard of the Guard has written a book describing their glorious history.

In April, former members of the Guard are planning a march from Switzerland to Rome in memory of that first trip half a millennium ago. Stamps designed by former guard Rudolf Mirer and commemorative coins in gold and silver will be produced throughout the year to honor this tiny band of men who have so faithfully served the popes.

To do my part in celebrating the Jubilee of the Swiss Guards, I thought I would dispel the most common modern myths regarding the troop, their clothes and their functions.

Myth: «The guards are Swiss because Switzerland is a neutral country.»
Not in 1506 it wasn’t. It wasn’t until 1648, after the Treaty of Westphalia, that Switzerland first declared itself a neutral state. The Congress of Vienna recognized its formal neutrality in 1815.

In the 15th century Switzerland had too large a population for its feeble economy and many young men were organized into military units of mercenary soldiers to be hired out by foreign powers. Both the king of France and the papacy contracted them because of their reputation as the fiercest fighters on the Continent as well as their steadfast loyalty to their employers.

Myth: «They are wearing clown suits.»

The uniforms of the Guards have amused and baffled many a tourist in recent years. It seems impossible that an elite military force would wear such gaudy stripes and ribbons.

But in 1506, when an army was composed of several mercenary guards fighting together, it was helpful to be able to distinguish friend from foe on the battlefield. The distinctive colors of the Swiss uniforms encouraged bravery on the field as they would be most noticeable.

They wear the Medici colors of red, yellow and blue after saving the life of the Medici pope Clement VII, but there is no proof of the popular legend that their costumes were designed by Michelangelo, who made no known forays into dressmaking from his usual tasks of painting, sculpture and architecture.

And to right but a few of Dan Brown’s wrongs …

No, Swiss Guards don’t fly the «papal helicopter,» principally because there isn’t one (the Pope borrows the Italian president’s helicopter). And sorry, Dan, but they don’t sit in high-tech surveillance offices lined with rare books, oriental rugs and artworks pilfered from the papal collections.

And finally, for a dozen Swiss Guards to go dashing around Rome investigating a crime would be tantamount to an act of military invasion of the Italian state.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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