in Arcadia there were born
- The Faithful Shepherd, Giambattista Guarini (translated by Richard Fanshawe)
Les Bergers d'Arcadie, Nicholas Poussin (1637-38)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In my previous blogpost I gave a brief introduction to the development of the vanitas motif in art, and this blogposts examines another step in this evolution, namely the motif of death in Arcadia, collectively known as Et in Arcadia ego. This artistic genre draws on a long legacy of bucolic writing reaching back into Greek and Roman literature, with Vergilius' Bucolica and Georgica, pastoral eclogues detailing the idyllic life of shepherds, as perhaps the most important works. They retained their popularity throughout the Middle Ages, and Vergilius' position in the eyes of the medieval learned is perfectly exemplified by his role as Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory.
In the 16th century pastoral poetry gained increased momentum with the critical debates concerning Aristotle's Poetics, which had been translated into Latin late in the preceding century. Aristotle's rules of drama gave rise to the modern theatre, and also caused a lot of controversy among literary theorists who sought to reconcile the Poetics with Horatius' Ars Poetica, and some of the key points of tension were whether the satyr play and the shepherd play were the same, and whether either could be seen as a genre of its own on par with the tragedy and the comedy. As these definitions were tried and experimented with, a significant body of pastoral literature arose. This occurred primarily in Italy, but several important works were also written in England. These pastoral works were often composed for the court, and frequently contrasted the deceits of courtly life with the simplicity of the pastoral scene, often represented by Arcadia, a region in Greece that had become synonymous with The Pastoral Idyll.
Woodcut from second eclogue of Spenser's Shepheardes Calender, 1579
Courtesy of this website
Among the most important literary works to shape the late medieval and early modern pastoral were the plays Aminta (1573) by Torquato Tasso and The Faithful Shepherd (1590) by Giambattista Guarini. These were not only texts to be performed, but statements in the ongoing debate on genre, where the views of the playwright were put to paper and then executed on stage. The Arcadian scene was already a long-standing feature in Italian literature, from Jacopo Sannazzaro's very influential poem Arcadia from 1504 and onwards. This tradition also influenced English writers of the times, and among the foremost are Edmund Spenser, who wrote his Shepheardes Calender in 1579 in imitation of Vergilius, and Sir Philip Sidney, whose The Duchess of Pembroke's Arcadia drew on Sannazzaro's poem, among others.
In the 17th century, this pastoral tradition was merged with the contemporary vanitas motif in art, and resulted in some beautiful and deeply unsettling paintings, where the pastoral idyll was disrupted by the discovery of death's presence, even in the blissful Arcadia. The first example of this sub-genre, that I know of, is a painting by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri executed in the the period 1618-22. Barbieri, also known as Guercino, or the Squinter, here depicts two shepherds discovering a human skull, the proof that death also lurks in the blessed Arcadia. This sinister composition is given extra gravity when compared with another of Guercino's paintings, Apollo and Marsyas, where the same shepherds are witness to Marsyas' penalty, as seen below.
Et in Arcadia Ego, Guercino (1618-22)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Apollon and Marsyas, Guercino (1618)
Courtesy of Wikigallery
The most famous rendition of death in Arcadia was painted by Nicholas Poussin in 1637-38 and titled Les Bergers d'Arcadie, The Shepherds of Arcadia, as seen above. This iconic painting of shepherds examining a tomb was, however, a later variation of the theme, and the first painting was finished in 1627 with a slightly different composition as seen below.
Les Bergers d'Arcadie, Nicholas Poussin (1627)
These doleful meditations on death's omnipresence are a very beautiful confluence of the vanitas motif and the literary pastoral, evoking the mythological register of Arcadia while playing on the symbolism of the vanitas in a manner worthy of the rising Baroque of the first half of the 17th century, giving a contemporary touch to elements of a rich and long-standing history.
Hagen, Margareth, 1500 - poetikk, intertekst og sjanger i italiensk 1500-tallslitteratur, 2013
Hayward, Malcolm, introduction to Torquato Tasso's Aminta, 1997: http://www.english.iup.edu/mhayward/aminta.htm
Penman, Bruce, Five Italian Renaissance Comedies, Penguin Classics, 1978