Arcadia Arcadia

Tom Stoppard named his famous 1993 play Arcadia for a reason. Arcardia is a literal location but also an idea, an ideal of a utopian space of pastoral harmony that extends back to the Greeks. From the Renaissance onward, though, it was seen as a utopia but also as an unattainable, lost Eden.

As a literal location, Arcadia is a mountainous region in central Greece, with mountains that once cut off its inhabitants from the rest of the city, allowing them to dwell in peace and conduct their life simply. They were said to embody the lifestyle of the Golden Age, lacking corruption and avarice. The region declined after the Romans conquered it.

Arcadia was said to be the land of Pan; the god dwelt there in the wilderness with nymphs and dryads and other supernatural figures. Artists and writers have embraced Arcadia as emblematic of utopia in the centuries since its settlement and place in Greek myth. Theocritus and Virgil wrote of it, the latter in the famous Eclogues. Italian poet Sanzaro made it the subject of his work Arcadia, while Edmund Spenser wrote of it in The Shepherd’s Calendar. In the 1580s, Sir Philip Sidney’s heroic romance, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, brought the idyll to the Renaissance audience; not long after, Spanish poet Lope de Vega published Arcadia: Prose and Verse (1598).

Modern writers are equally attracted to the famed locale. W.S. Gilbert published The Arcadians, an Edwardian musical comedy. A subtitle of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is “Et in Arcadia ego” and that phrase is also the name of the Judge’s rifle in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a seminal modern work in which the idea and its pedigree are referenced and discussed.

Famous paintings of the subject include Nicolas Poussin in his Et in Arcadia ego, Thomas Eakins in Arcadia, Friedrich August von Kaulbach's In Arcadia, and Guercino’s The Arcadian Shepherds.

Giovanni de Verrazano also gave the term to the North Atlantic coast of Virginia in the late 1500s; it later changed to Acadia.