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Arcadia (Greek: Ἀρκαδία) refers to a vision of pastoralism and harmony with nature. The term is derived from the Greek province of the same name which dates to antiquity; the province's mountainous topography and sparse population of pastoralists later caused the word Arcadia to develop into a poetic byword for an idyllic vision of unspoiled wilderness. Arcadia is associated with bountiful natural splendor, harmony, and is often inhabited by shepherds. The concept also figures in Renaissance mythology. Commonly thought of as being in line with Utopian ideals, Arcadia differs from that tradition in that it is more often specifically regarded as unattainable. Furthermore, it is seen as a lost, Edenic form of life, contrasting to the progressive nature of Utopian desires.
The inhabitants were often regarded as having continued to live after the manner of the Golden Age, without the pride and avarice that corrupted other regions. It is also sometimes referred to in English poetry as Arcady. The inhabitants of this region bear an obvious connection to the figure of the noble savage, both being regarded as living close to nature, uncorrupted by civilization, and virtuous.
Arcadia in antiquity
According to Greek mythology, Arcadia of Peloponnesus was the domain of Pan, a virgin wilderness home to the god of the forest and his court of dryads, nymphs and other spirits of nature. It was one version of paradise, though only in the sense of being the abode of supernatural entities, not an afterlife for deceased mortals.
Arcadia in the Renaissance
Arcadia has remained a popular artistic subject since antiquity, both in visual arts and literature. Images of beautiful nymphs frolicking in lush forests have been a frequent source of inspiration for painters and sculptors. As a result of the influence of Virgil in medieval European literature (see, for example, Divine Comedy), Arcadia became a symbol of pastoral simplicity. European Renaissance writers (for instance, the Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega) often revisited the theme, and the name came to apply to any idyllic location or paradise. Unlike the word "utopia" (named for Thomas More's book, Utopia), "Arcadia" does not carry the connotation of a human civilization; Arcadia is presented as the spontaneous result of life lived naturally, uncorrupted by civilization.
Of particular note is Et in Arcadia ego by Nicholas Poussin, which has become famous both in its own right and because of its (possible) connection with the gnostic histories of the Rosicrucians. In 1502 Jacopo Sannazaro published his long poem Arcadia that fixed the Early Modern perception of Arcadia as a lost world of idyllic bliss, remembered in regretful dirges. In the 1590s Sir Philip Sidney circulated copies of his influential heroic romance poem The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia establishing Arcadia as an icon of the Renaissance; although the story is plentifully supplied with shepherds and other pastoral figures, the central characters of the plot are all royalty visiting the countryside. The Spanish playwright and poet Lope de Vega also published in 1598 his Arcadia: Prose and Verse, which was a bestseller for its time.
- [...] Does not the pleasantness of this place carry in itself sufficient reward for any time lost in it, or for any such danger that might ensue? Do you not see how everything conspires together to make this place a heavenly dwelling? Do you not see the grass, how in color they excel the emeralds [...]? Do not these stately trees seem to maintain their flourishing old age, with the only happiness of their seat being clothed with a continual spring, because no beauty here should ever fade? Doth not the air breathe health which the birds (both delightful both to the ear and eye) do daily solemnize with the sweet consent of their voices? Is not every echo here a perfect music? And these fresh and delightful brooks, how slowly they slide away, as, loath to leave the company of so many things united in perfection, and with how sweet a murmur they lament their forced departure. Certainly, certainly, cousin, it must needs be, that some goddess this desert belongs unto, who is the soul of this soil, for neither is any less than a goddess worthy to be shrined in such a heap of pleasures, nor any less than a goddess could have made it so perfect a model of the heavenly dwellings. [...]
Though depicted as contemporary, this pastoral form is often connected with the Golden Age. It may be suggested that its inhabitants have merely continued to live as people did in the Golden Age, and all other nations have less pleasant lives because they have allowed themselves to depart from the original simplicity.
The 16th-century Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano applied the name "Arcadia" to the entire North American Atlantic coast north of Virginia. In time, this mutated to Acadia. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography says: "Arcadia, the name Verrazzano gave to Maryland or Virginia 'on account of the beauty of the trees', made its first cartographical appearance in the 1548 Gastaldo map and is the only name on that map to survive in Canadian usage. . . . In the 17th century Champlain fixed its present orthography, with the 'r' omitted, and Ganong has shown its gradual progress northwards, in a succession of maps, to its resting place in the Atlantic Provinces".
Arcadia is now the name of many cities and towns around the world.
In 1945, Evelyn Waugh sub-titled the first part of his novel Brideshead Revisited "Et in Arcadia ego". In Gabriel García Márquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, the founder and patriarch of the Macondo community bears the name José Arcadio Buendía. Over the course of the novel, Arcadio becomes a multigenerational patronym that resonates with many of the other utopian tropes explored elsewhere in the text.
In fantasy literature, Arcadia has been used as a magical realm, respective to the fictional universe in which the story occurs. A number of role-playing games have also adopted the idea, either using it as a separate realm within the multiverse (à la the Arcadia of the Dungeons & Dragons universe), or even using it as the central focus of an entire game system (as in White Wolf's Changeling: The Dreaming game). In Changeling: The Lost, Arcadia is presented as a hellish realm, where humans abducted by the True Fae are subject to unimaginable torment and torture, in sharp contrast to its usual utopian description.
According to the best-selling PC-game The Longest Journey, Arcadia was divided from the primordial original world, and represents fantasy, dreams and magic, while our world, Stark, is the world of science and technology.
In the game Bioshock, Arcadia is a level in which the protagonist has to navigate through an artificial forest. Arcadia was created by Dr. Julie Langford. This forest provides the oxygen for the rest of the city of Rapture, and was used as a peaceful retreat for the citizens.
The name has recently been popularized by its connection to the pseudo-history of the Freemasons - in particular the Latin motto "Et in Arcadia ego" ("Even here, I [Death] exist.") The phrase is used frequently in conspiracy fiction and lore, such as the pseudo-historical work Holy Blood, Holy Grail and the novel The Da Vinci Code, where it is interpreted as an anagram of I! Tego Arcana Dei ("Begone! I know the secrets of God").
Rock band The Libertines have referenced Arcadia as the destination their imaginary ship Albion sails towards.
Arcadia University is a college located in Glenside, Pennsylvania, USA.
In the recent movie Resident Evil: Extinction, the characters seek to travel to Arcadia, Alaska, which is promised to be free of zombies. In Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D, it is revealed that Arcadia refers to the USS Arcadia, a ship that collects survivors for experimentation.
In the popular sci-fi series Doctor Who, Arcadia is the name of a city on the planet Gallifrey.
- Arcadia (region of Greece)
- Golden Age
- Et in Arcadia ego (Guercino), painting by Italian artist Giovanni Francesco Barbieri
- Bridget Ann Henish, The Medieval Calendar Year, p96, ISBN 0-271-01904-2
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- Net in Arcadia Virtual Museum of Contemporary Classicism