“Even in Arcadia there am I”

Guercino Et in Arcadia Ego, c. 1618Imagine this opening scene: a couple of shepherds minding their business, that is to say minding their flock—certainly bucolic if not a bit soporific, counting sheep and all. Their only source of excitement is in an errant lamb or in the capriciousness of the clouds. Later heading home the shepherds agree, let’s take a new path, really shake things up today. They no sooner round a wooded bend than they run smack into a tomb, topped with a moldering skull peering in their direction and a mouse—that constant gnawer of time—gnawing on “death’s head.” And just in case the shepherds didn’t get the message, inscribed on the stone is “Et in Arcadia Ego,” the Grim Reaper’s memo that he is among them in their idyllic setting.

Et in Arcadia Ego is a painting of Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, the seventeenth century Italian artist who went by the diminutive Guercino for the “guercio,” the squint due to his immobile right eye. He painted the memento mori in 1618 – 1622, or so, interrupted by various commissions, altarpieces for churches, frescoes for private villas. He was largely self-taught, apprenticing with a couple of painters from Cento, his Emilia-Romagna hometown. The painter Ludovico Carracci, of the famed Carracci workshop, called the twenty-six year old Guercino “[a] prodigy of nature and a wonder capable of astounding all who see his works.”[1] While we’re told his style over time radically changed—from the dramatic Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro in tone and theme to a paler palette filled with classical restraint—his life, but for a two-year sojourn to Rome, working on commissions for Pope Gregory XV and his family, stayed much the same. He never married, lived in Cento, maintained his workshop, and spent the last two decades of his life in neighboring Bologna where he assumed the role of Bologna’s leading painter when Guido Reni died in 1642. Carlo Cesare Malavasia, the seventeenth century writer, noted in his history of Bolognese paintings that Guercino prodigiously painted 144 works and 106 altarpieces for princes and popes, kings and queens and diplomats across Italy and France, England and Spain.

Back in 1618 the shepherds’ day in Arcadia was, however, not quite done; Guercino appears to have given the story an alternative ending—or perhaps the artist was simply experimenting, borrowing from himself. Instead of stumbling upon Death’s dreary reminder, the skull and the mouse, those same two shepherds, in the same garb, in the same composition, have come up on Apollo flaying the satyr Marsyas. No matter the scene, Et in Arcadia Ego or Apollo and Marsyas.[2] What a downer the day has become, the young men seem to be thinking.

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[1] “Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri): Samson Captured by the Philistines (1984.459.2)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1984.459.2 (September 2008).

[2] Apollo and Marsyas was commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, collection at Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, Florence.

Additional sources: William M. Griswold, “Guercino.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 48, no. 4 (Spring, 1991); Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, University of Chicago Press, 1983.

(Image: Et in Arcadia Ego, c. 1618, Oil on linen, 78 x 89 cm., collection Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini, Rome.)


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