Arcadia or Αρκαδία
A province of Greece in the centre of the Peloponnese. It took its name from the mythological letter Arcas, while history in this area records periods from the Roman to the Byzantine empires, and even a short period under the Franks before, in the mid 15
th century, the province was taken by the Turks. After 400 years of Ottoman rule, Arcadia became the centre for the Greek struggle for independence.
In mythology, Arcadia is known as the homeland of Pan “who could be heard playing on the syrinx on the hill of Mainalos”. According to tradition, the inhabitants of Arcadia lived a simple but happy pastoral life and were known for their musicality and their ancient origin, a pedigree that allegedly went all the way back to the Moon. They were ascribed strict principles of justice and rustic hospitality, as well as ignorance and a low standard of living. Thanks to literature and the fine arts, the place has for millennia been a symbol of genuine happiness (Utopia, symbol of the Golden Age) although the real landscape was described impartially by the historian Polybius, himself an Arcadian, as “a poor, bare, rocky and cold land, short of all the amenities of life and with hardly enough food for a few skinny goats”. Greek poets thus hesitated to locate their pastoral poetry in this Arcadia, and some of the scenes of the most famed among them, in Theocritus’s Idylls for example, are located in Sicily, full of flowery meadows and shady groves, to which Pan himself is moved, to return to the dying Daphnis his shepherd’s pipe. In Latin poems, particularly in Virgil’s Eclogues, came the first revolution in the interpretation of Arcadia, in the direction of its idealisation, mythical truth taking on contemporary and elegiac sense of transitoriness, and in the 5th Eclogue comes the first appearance of Daphnis’ grave in Arcadia. After the decline of pastoral poetry in the Middle Ages, the Italian poet Jacopo Sannazaro was to bring it to life in his bucolic poem Arcadia of 1504 (or 1502, according to Panofsky), as an emotional experience and utopian domain modelled on Virgil, but for Sannazaro this domain is inevitably a lost domain, and his poetry is replete with the spirit of reminiscence and melancholy.
In the well-known Latin tag “Et in Arcadia ego” the verb to be, esse, is missing, which has led to numerous ways of reading. It has been read as a funeral epitaph, addressing Death itself: “I too (am) in Arcadia” or “In Arcadia too there is me”. Then began a way of interpreting the phrase in a manner inappropriate to Latin grammar, putting it in the past and in the first person: “I too was once in Arcadia”, which has been retained until this day, achieving prominence in later literature, in, for example, the first verses of Schiller’s poem “Resignation”: “Auch ich war in Arcadian geboren”.
The first setting of the inscription and topic from this point of view can be seen in paintings of the same name of the master of the Italian Baroque, Francesco Guercino (1621-23, Rome, National Gallery), which also represents the already mentioned transformation of the theme of the idyll into the theme of memento mori, a reference to the transitoriness of life, a meaning very close to the spirit of the Baroque. The best known examples of this still widespread interpretation of the phrase are two versions of the topic “Shepherds in Arcadia” by Poussin (one of 1627, now in the Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth, and the second, with the title of “Les bergers d’ Arcadie” of 1645-46, in the Louvre). In the fine arts the topic was to take on new interpretations, as shown convincingly in his study by Erwin Panofsky, all the way down to the Rococo (Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard), sounding there as less of a moralising warning, and more as an utopian, consolatory promise: “In death too there is Arcadia”.

Panofsky, Erwin: Meaning in the Visual Arts. University of Chicago Press, 1955/1993