“Conjures up a retrospective vision of an unsurpassable happiness, enjoyed in the past, unattainable ever after, yet enduringly alive in the memory. A bygone happiness ended by death.” Erwin Panofsky
The geographical entity of Arcadia encompasses the mountainous core of the Peloponnese. A remote and rugged region, it seems to have been a bastion against the influx of Hellenic tribes speaking the Doric Greek language. Later Greek writers therefore came to think of the Arcadians as the primordial denizens of the region – a remnant of its very earliest inhabitants. Arcady was also the home of Pan, the primitive goat-like god, patron of shepherds, who could occasionally be heard playing his eponymous pipes on the slopes of Mount Maenalus. By association the Arcadians therefore came to be noted for their musical skills.
But why did this wild and often inhospitable land, incapable of supporting all but the most meagre living, come to serve as the ideal realm of pastoral ease and blissful beauty – an idyll now lost and unrecoverable but the subject of a deep yearning.
This idealised vision was fashioned not in Greece, where Arcadian reality was too near a neighbour, but centuries later through the Latin poetry of Theocritus who induces Pan to appear amid the lush meadows of Sicily, and Virgil who sets his verse in Greece, mentioning the ubiquitous sound of music, but also introduces a verdant flora and eternal spring to his personal Arcadian amalgam. And it is Virgil who was responsible for the addition of that essential part of the mix – the thread of sweet melancholy which is inextricably woven into all subsequent evocations of Arcadia.
It is Virgil’s Arcadia which emerges after a millennium and more blinking into the light of the Renaissance. At the apogee of the Quattrocento Virgil’s vision of Arcadia became an important theme in the cultural life of the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent. In the last years of the 15th Century Jacopo Sannazaro gave voice to these philosophical and literary ideas in his poetic work Arcadia. It first circulated as a manuscript before publication in 1502.