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Rethinking Lessing’s Laocoon: Antiquity, the Enlightenment, and the ‘Limits’ of Painting and Poetry

Research output: Book/ReportAnthology

Michael James Squire, Avi Lifschitz

Original languageEnglish
PublisherOxford Univerity Press; Oxford
Number of pages460
ISBN (Print)978–0–19–880222–8
Publication statusPublished - 2017

King's Authors


Ever since its publication in 1766, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s treatise Laocoon, or on the Limits of Painting and Poetry has shaped debates about aesthetic experience and the medial distinctions between words and images. ‘Rethinking Lessing’s Laocoon’ provides a reassessment of this seminal work on its 250th anniversary, examining Lessing’s interpretation of ancient art and poetry, the Enlightenment contexts of the treatise, and its subsequent legacy in the fields of aesthetic, semiotics and philosophy.

Lessing’s essay is focused on an ancient statue and its interpretation, revisiting Greek and Roman texts and images to think about the spatial and temporal ‘limits’ (Grenzen) of what Lessing calls ‘poetry’ and ‘painting’. Yet the text is also embedded within Enlightenment theories of art, perception, and historical interpretation – as well as within the nascent eighteenth-century study of classical antiquity (Altertumswissenschaft). ‘Rethinking Lessing’s Laocoon’ is concerned not just with Lessing’s reception of antiquity, but also with the reception of that reception up to the present day. It examines Lessing’s work from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, highlighting the importance of Lessing’s Laocoon not only in the Enlightenment but more generally within shifting attitudes to the Classical past.

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