This paper examines how the notion of integritas, central to a Thomistic philosophy of art and aesthetics, applies to works of art which are corrupt or incomplete due to missing parts. Using the Laocoön as a primary example, the author argues that the concept of unitas in Thomistic philosophy is essential to understanding how a work such as the Laocoön can retain its integritas even when a portion of the father's right arm is missing. Although the epistemological foundation that undergirds the aesthetic perception of the "incomplete" Laocoön differs from that of the "complete" Laocoön, the author concludes that the Thomistic concept of integritas allows a work of art to be "imperfect" in one sense, though still "perfect" in another.
keywords: Integritas (integrity), incompletion, perfection, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Laocoön, proportion, clarity, unity, form
1. The Laocoön and incompleteness
While contemplating the Laocoön sculpture group in the Vatican Museums one spring afternoon I was distracted by an exchange between a mother and her five-year-old daughter. "My dear," the mother asked, "isn't this statue beautiful?"
The girl pondered the question for a moment before replying, "I guess so" But mommy, where are the arms?"
"They're lost " that's all." Unsatisfied though she seemed, the girl accepted her mother's authoritative judgment and tagged along behind her toward the Sistine Chapel.
My paper is an attempt to sketch the philosophical implications of the distinction between the girl's observation and her mother's explanation. In the girl's estimation, two of the figures in the statue that so impressed her mother did not have arms. The mother's experience and wisdom enabled her to recognize that the arms were merely missing. At a rudimentary level, it may be that the girl assumed that figures in the sculpture never had arms, whereas the mother knew that they once had had them, but had them no longer. The child hesitated to label the sculpture "beautiful" because intuitively she knew that beautiful things are "wholes". Her mother, aware that arms were once there, was somehow able to designate the artwork as beautiful. I cannot help but wonder what deeper philosophical speculation I might have provoked that day had I interjected with the mendacious claim that Roman sculptors rarely included arms on their sculptures. Should the mother have appreciated them any less?
The Laocoön is undoubtedly the cause célèbre of the rediscovery and restitution of a missing limb. This piece, a deceptively complex and tragic work representing the punishment of the Trojan priest along with his two sons, was reputedly discovered in a field on the Esquiline Hill on January 14, 1506. Among the eyewitnesses to the discovery were Michaelangelo, Sangallo the Elder, and his son. Pope Julius II, ecstatic that the famous work described by Pliny had finally been found, immediately purchased the statue and had it installed in a courtyard of the Vatican Palace. It instantly became the paradigmatic model for training in the art of sculpture and a canonical piece for artistic contests in sculpture and drawing.
The story of the reproduction and "rediscovery" of the right arm is as convoluted as the unearthing of the statue itself. Baccio Bandinelli, who was eventually commissioned by Leo X to make a copy of the Laocoön, originally designed a replacement for the missing right arm, but it was never subsequently attached. Later, an arm was finished by a little known apprentice of Michaelangelo by the name of Giovanni Montorsoli. Michaelangelo, who initially had declined an invitation to reproduce the right arm, and who was exasperated by unsatisfactory attempts to extrapolate and imitate the original position and angle of the arm by other artists, himself completed the right forearm at a much more restricted and contorted angle in respect to the upper arm. …