Laocoon

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El Greco, Laocoön, 1610-1614
The head was twisted backwards: some cruel torsion
Forced face towards kidneys, and the people strode
Backwards, because deprived of forward vision.
Perhaps some time a palsy was wrung the head
Of a man straight back like these, or a terrible stroke -
But I've never seen one do so, and doubt it could.
-Inferno, Dante, Canto XX

This circle in Dante's Inferno houses fortune tellers and people who have searched for their future. These figures rest, or rather, are dis-configured and forced to face backward and walk forward. Especially disturbing to Dante, this heinous torture brings him to tears. The notes on Canto XX explain the controversies of this circle pertaining to Virgil. Known for his "reputation in the Middle Ages as a magician and the practice of telling the future through random selections from his writing," Dante uses this situations to explain their differences, which creating the longest lecture in Inferno.

El Greco shows another form of terrible torture in Laocoon, which depicts the story of his death. El Greco took this imagery from Virgil's Aeneid where Laocoon, Neptune's priest in Troy during the Trojan War, attempts to warn the Trojans of accepting the gift from the Greeks.  In the Aeneid Laocoon exclaims,"'Are you out of your minds, you poor fools? Are you so easily convinced that the enemy has sailed away? Do you honestly think that any Greek gift comes without treachery? What is Ulysses known for? Either this lumber is hiding Achaeans inside, or it has been build as an engine of war to attack our walls, to spy on our homes and come down on the city from above. Or some other evil lurks inside, do not trust the horse Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts.'" This strict warning to the Trojans was followed by a spear driven from Laocoon's hand into the "belly of the beast" and stirred up a loud noise throughout because of the hollow nature of the horse. his warnings were dismissed, but still upset the Goddess Athena.

Athena, offended by Laocoon's prediction of the horse, arranged for his fate to be met in a ruthless fashion. As he was praying at Neptune's altar, two serpents emerged from the water, and without hesitation, moved straight for Laocoon's sons, killing them both. Running to his sons, Laocoon was captured by the serpents, and they wrapped "Twice around his waist and twice around his neck," Virgil describes the rest of the attack, "Their heads held high. As the priest struggled to wrench himself free from the knotted coils, his headbands were soaked with venom and gore, and his horrible cries reached up to the stars." The story goes on to say how the people thought his punishment was well-deserved for having tampered with the Greeks gift, but those Trojans would not think that for long, because Laocoon's predictions, of course, came to pass.

The story of Laocoon and Canto XX both describe gruesome dismemberment of bodies and uncomfortable pain dealt unto the people. Dante describes the bodies of the psychics and fortune tellers in an unimaginable way, and El Greco illustrates the same horror through the Laocoon and his son's death. El Greco, known for his exaggerated proportions, allows the eye to view the elongated bodies in full pain and torture, much the same way that Dante's bodies are described in Canto XX.        

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