This morning, two climate protesters glued themselves to the base of the famous ancient Roman sculpture “Laocoön and His Sons,” housed at the Vatican and sometimes referred to by art historians as a “prototypical icon of human agony.” Excavated in 1506 and dating back to the first century BCE, the statue was left undamaged.
The protesters were affiliated with Ultima Generazione, an Italian climate activism group that was founded in 2021 as an offshoot of the British civil disobedience group Extinction Rebellion and which has staged several similar actions involving gluing bodies to artwork. In July, two activists from the same group glued themselves to Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Before that, activists associated with Just Stop Oil, a United Kingdom-based coalition, glued themselves to paintings including Vincent van Gogh’s “Peach Trees in Blossom (1889) at the Courtauld Gallery in London, Horatio McCulloch’s “My Heart’s in the Highland” (1860) at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, John Constable’s “The Hay Wain”(1821), and J.M.W. Turner’s “Thomson’s Aeolian Harp.” All of these works portray natural beauty that activists worry is being irreparably destroyed with each passing day by untamed climate change.
Although this recent wave of gluing protests has exclusively taken place in Europe, a report early this month from the Observer revealed that a consortium of philanthropists (including a Kennedy heir and a Getty heir) in California have been funding Ultima Generazione and Just Stop Oil’s efforts.
No significant damage has been done to any work yet, suggesting that protesters are wary of destroying artistic heritage for the time being. In the case of Botticelli’s “Primavera,” artists glued themselves to a protective glass covering the actual painting, and for Constable’s “The Hay Wain,” they glued themselves primarily to the painting’s frame.
“It was never my ambition to publicly expose [myself] in this way, disturbing the silence of a museum and gluing myself on an iconic artwork. But we all have little choice when it comes to [forcing] institutions to hear our alarm,” an Ultima Generazione activist said in a statement today.
In the aftermath of their Botticelli action, a press statement from Ultima Generazione clarified, “In the same way that we defend our artistic heritage, we should be dedicated to the care and protection of the planet that we share with the rest of the world.”
Ultima Generazione interprets “Laocoön and His Sons” as a portrayal of the myth of a Greek priest whose attempt to warn his countrymen that Troy would be imminently infiltrated by an enemy threat went unheeded. Similarly, they fear that political leaders today are perilously ignoring the imperative to mitigate climate change. They appeal to the director of the Vatican to lobby the government to halt re-openings of coal mines and natural gas exploration, and increase its production of alternative energy.