The 24th of August 79 A.D. was a catastrophic day for the cities of Pompeii, Ercolano and Stabia, which were all completely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This terrible event was accurately recorded by Pliny, still a child at the time, who followed his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who had been appointed by the emperor Titus to coordinate support for the people of the three cities, only to die in the process. The Roman cities were buried under several meters of lava and their existence was forgotten for centuries. This was true until the end of the eighteenth century, when, thanks to the support of the Neapolitan royal family, excavations started and the cities were brought back to life. Nowadays, more than five million people visit Pompeii every year, curious to immerse themselves in the everyday life of a first century roman city.
Arcadia is not exactly a lost city, but rather a remote sensation we keep in a corner of our imagination. On the one hand, it gives us the idea of something far away, lost forever, but on the other it has never really left our subconscious.
Arcadia has always been the poorest region in Greece, but despite this it enjoyed a prominent place in the minds of ancient Greeks. Athens represented eventful life, art, policy, crowded streets, active ports, the home of the most eminent philosophers and men of culture, whilst Sparta, by contrast, was the city of strength, war, and was devoted to ancient moral values. Between these two exemplary cities was Arcadia, a poor land of shepherds with a basic economy, almost representing the lost innocence of humankind. Outdoor life, simple and genuine food, a life dedicated to hard work and the family, obstinately focused on the things we 21st century Europeans would probably like to see more of in our modern lives. But only very few of us are brave enough to choose that life, mainly because we do not want to leave our comfort zone. And yet the Arcadian alternative dwells in our subconscious.
How different our existence is! Life is a fruit that is given to us, and in the very moment we appreciate it, it is taken away from us. It is an unkept promise: you are born, you love your parents and relatives who give you love and teach you what you need to become a man, then they leave you, just as you think they are a fundamental part of your life. You give birth to children who you will later have to leave. You work hard to find your way in the world and after forty or fifty years you see the book of your life close. Before people started believing that life could continue in an afterlife, this represented a tragedy: they thought it a cruel trick of fate.
In the Bible the place of everlasting joy was called earthly Paradise: “Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and he placed there the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made various trees grow that were delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. This famous passage from Genesis provides certain images, which instill in our mind the idea of a serene life now lost forever. The first is God planting a garden: it suggests a period in which God did things in person, which could only be good. The second is the garden, that had been planted in the east, which, by the Middle Ages represented a mythical faraway place, where everything was possible. Third: the garden was fully supplied by God: not only did it produce everything man would need to survive, but it also contained the tree of knowledge and that of life. In that idyllic period, man suffered neither bodily nor spiritual needs. In fact, almost every ancient culture keeps in its collective memory such a place, such a period. For instance, Hesiod, the first known ancient Greek writer, tells us of a Golden Age with more or less the same characteristics as the Bible’s earthly Paradise.
In ancient Greek culture, this lifestyle was ascribed to Arcadia. Simple people, poor but not sad because of it, living according to the season’s rhythm, herding their flocks, and killing just the animals they needed to feed themselves. No old age, no troubles, no illness, no pain nor death but everlasting youth. Shepherds perennially in love with delicate shepherdesses, who dreamt of spending their lives adoring husbands and loving their children. Nature, of course, had a very important part in this world: fresh and clean water brooks, singing birds, sweet-smelling flowers played their part to make possible what modern people seem to have lost forever.
In turn, art could not avoid reflecting such an ancestral sentiment. Except for Hesiod, who describes pastoral life as the best way to live honestly, Theocritus, a poet of the third century B.C. from Sicily, went down in history as the most prominent pastoral writer. After him, the great Virgil followed with two refined poems: The Bucolics, describing the serene existence of shepherds, and The Georgics,portraying the life of farmers. He was requested to write these two poems by emperor Augustus, who wanted to offer his people the ancient, simple, serene lifestyle as an example in opposition to the modern, dissolute Roman habits.
Sticking with poetry, the second half of the sixteenth century was probably the most important in terms of reinforcing this Arcadian dream. Gian Battista Guarini wrote the Pastor Fido, a poem set completely in an ancient pastoral environment. It immediately became a literary success setting off a multitude of imitators throughout Europe. It was even set to music by Haendel and Vivaldi. Let me add that Milton’s L’allegro and Il pensieroso were in turn influenced by Guarini’s poem and skillfully engraved by Blake.
We are not able to visit Arcadia, as we can with Pompeii, but we probably don’t need to, because we have not completely left it.
Some people, in order to escape weekly stress, buy a house in the countryside. Perhaps this is because of a vague memory of that lost life, and an attempt to recreate it.
Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of medieval and modern Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer school in Sale Marasino – www.iseolakess.it