Sunday, 2 May 2010


“Death never takes the wise man by surprise; He is always ready to go.” - Jean de La Fontaine

Et in Arcadia Ego…” - “And in Arcadia I (had lived).” This is a tomb inscription that serves as a memento mori to the carefree travellers who may chance upon it. It purpose simple, to remind even the happiest of mortals that happiness and youth are transient and the tomb awaits us all. Arcadia, the Greek rustic region in the Peloponnese was from ancient times idealised as a wonderful place to live in natural and simple surroundings.

The first appearance of a tomb with a memorial inscription (to Daphnis) in the idyllic settings of Arcadia appears in Virgil’s Eclogues V 42 ff. Virgil took the idealised Sicilian rustics that had first appeared in the Idylls of Theocritus and set them in the idealised and rustic Arcadia. The idea was taken up again in the circle of Lorenzo de’ Medici in the 1460s and 1470s, during the Renaissance. In his bucolic work Arcadia (1504), Jacopo Sannazaro painted the picture of Arcadia as a lost world of idyllic bliss, remembered in nostalgic verses. The first pictorial representation of the familiar memento mori theme that was popularised in 16th-century Venice, made more vivid by the inscription ET IN ARCADIA EGO, is Guercino’s canvas above, painted between 1618 and 1622 (in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica Rome), in which the inscription gains force from the prominent presence of a skull in the foreground, beneath which the words are carved.

Two shepherds gaze with awe at the tomb on which the skull is set. Attributes of death and decay like the mouse and the fly re-enforce the message of memento mori. Paintings such as this were commonplace once, especially meant for contemplation by the rich and powerful. The message was: “Where you are, I once was – where I am you shall be. Remember, you are mortal, no amount of money or earthly power will subvert the arrival of death…”

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (born 1591, Cento, died 1666, Bologna) was better known by his nickname Guercino (meaning “the squinter”). He was an Italian painter of the Bolognese School. Although he was self-taught he developed precociously into a formidable artist. Even though he spent much of his life in Cento (a small provincial town between Bologna and Ferrara), he managed to become one of the major artists of his day. He was early inspired by the classical reforms of Carraci but his pictures were full of movement and intense feeling.

In 1621 Pope Gregory XV summoned him to Rome where the artist stayed until 1623, trying to balance his own dynamic temperament with the rarefied manner of the classical school. In the process producing some very original and striking paintings. After Gregory's death in 1623, he went back to Emilia, his energy gradually seemed to dissipate and his painting became more controlled. On the death of Guido Reni (1642), who had loathed him, Guercino moved to Bologna where the dominant climate was coldly classical. Altering his art to suit this atmosphere, Guercino took over Reni's religious picture workshop and his role as the city's leading painter.


  1. This is a gloomy painting Nic but I guess that is what the artist meant. Whatever we do we have to remember our death!!!

  2. I like the directness and immediacy of this painting. There is one message pure and simple and it is given to us without any frills.
    The memento mori type of painting was a very common genre in the past. Interesting how these days we seem to ignore the message, even though we shoulD be even more mindful of it!
    Nice blog!