et in Arcadia ego

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Concept – [Link]

Confronting Classics

A field of projects exploring discovery, mark making, art, interpretation, ambiguity, remnants, monuments, reading signs, shadows, figuration, figures in a landscape, voice, memory, death and mortality.

cultivation (Arcadia – a garden)

An antiquity of time – not the time of antiquity (?)

asking questions in a critical genealogy of engagement with “antiquity” – where have we come from, how, and what might we do about this, how might we now act?

and an assertion of located, situated polyvocality

Et in Arcadia ego (also known as Les bergers d’Arcadie or The Arcadian Shepherds) 1637–38 by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665)

Four figures in a rural landscape.The title indicates that they are shepherds and that this is Arcadia. They inspect a stone monument. An inscription is the focus of their attention – “ET IN ARCADIA EGO”.

In the poems of Roman Virgil, the Eclogues (dates), Arcadia was a pastoral idyll, a garden, a land of simplicity, interrupting the cares of the city, a land of a golden age. Theocritus, a sophisticated and smart poet of Greek Alexandria (dates), had been part of the invention of such a pastoral idyll and located it in Greek Sicily. Arcadia in southern Greece had been considered somewhat backward, was never a land of those urban communities that so mark antiquity. Virgil offered a new framing of this contrast between urban sophistication and rural simplicity when he displaced and relocated the shepherds of Theocritus to Arcadia.

It might be assumed that this is a tomb, but why is it isolated out in the countryside? The shepherds, who might be expected to know their land, seem not to recognize the monument. Or perhaps they are showing it to the female, pointing out, literally, the inscription.

There is no direct evidence that this is a tomb. The inscription is ambiguous. “EVEN IN ARCADIA – EGO!” There is no verb, and therefore no indication of tense or time past, present or future. There is no temporality in the words, but the painting is time bound. The monument has endured; it bears an inscription made some time in the past, and so the monument is memorial. This is witnessed in the etymology: a monument is that which brings to mind, reminds and warns; monumentum is derived from monere). The shepherds have encountered this monument and inspect the inscription. Poussin has painted this encounter, again, for a second time (there are different versions of the same subject painted by Poussin and others).

A verb may be supplied to the inscription, of course. The order of the words suggests a tension between the ET and EGO, the first and last words, and so we might read the inscription as
“Even (or And) in the land of Arcadia I lived”,
“Even the land of Arcadia I visit(ed)”.
Who is “EGO”? Is it an eternal and anonymous “Everyman”? Is it the person interred in the monument? – “I died, even in the pastoral utopia that is the land of Arcadia.”
Or is this the presence of death? – “Death is present, even in the land of Arcadia”.

Given the ambiguity of the inscription and the plainness of the structure, this could be the base of a statue now lost. Who once stood there?

There has been much debate like this about the correct reading (see the classic essay by Erwin Panofsky, posted below). But really, there can be no correct reading.

The shepherd‘s fingers point out both the inscription and the shadow cast on the stone by one of them. Pliny the Elder, (Natural History XXXV 5, 15 dates) held that art arose from the tracing of such shadows. Figuration. Mark making as transcription rather than mimesis

The painting occupies the interstices, between here and there
between city and country (Raymond Williams)

(Arcadia and horticulture – a philosophical disposition)
between sign and meaning

more etymology – monere –> monument – monster

a fascinating semantic field

MONVMENTVM

that which brings to mind, reminds, warns, gives a sign to interpret

muster, demonstrate, admonish

MONSTRVM

a divine omen indicating misfortune, an evil omen, portent

(metonymically) a monster, monstrosity, whether in size or character

(figuratively) a thing that evokes fear and wonder

Allegory

Version from 1627. Chatsworth House.
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