How to Keep a Villa in Arcadia

January 01, 2013 · Essay

Poussin's oil-painting, Et in Arcadia Ego

Nicolas Poussin - Et in Arcadia ego (deuxième version), 1628. Oil on canvas | 85 x 121 cm.
Image: wikimedia/public domain

The curious meeting of death and rustic revelry in Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego has been branded 'utopian' at least since Panovsky’s seminal critique.1 Its themes find their classical roots in Virgil’s Eclogues. Pastoral herdsmen philosophize on the relationship between art and social status. As the Victorian classicist John Conington wrote in an introduction to a nineteenth-century edition, the Eclogues provide ‘a golden land where imagination found a refuge’.2 Yet their themes are far from idyllic when they address sorrow and injustice in the lives of the Ancient Romans.

Panovsky’s reading—combined with Conington’s notion of a ‘refuge’ and Arthur Danto’s suggestion that a biennale offers ‘a glimpse of a transnational utopia’—is useful for thinking about the Giardini as the primary site of the Venice Biennale. Like Virgil’s poetry, this internationalized parkland channels idealist expression. Much like the pastoral herdsmen, who sought social recognition and lamented their sufferings in the Eclogues, the artists of the Biennale reflect on matters of individual and collective concern, though in this case, through works housed within national pavillions. Indeed, Joseph Meeker points to Virgil’s own reflections in the Eclogues ‘on the weariness of sensitive Romans to the excesses and injustices of their society and their quest for solace and sense in a rural setting.’3

Historically, the landmass of the Gardini was claimed after draining a marsh.4 Under Napoleon’s instruction, the project was in part a commitment to botanic science in the context of Enlightenment thought. In her history of the Giardini, Vittoria Martini notes that two axes mark lines of entrance to the Park: one from the city, one from the sea.5 The latter points to a man-made hill. Thirty pavillions cohabit like Olympian gods in a diverse assemblage of architecture. The buildings themselves were constructed as early twentieth-century responses to a tension or ‘impatience’ felt by native artists towards ‘sanctioned internationality’ in early versions of the Biennale.6

Today, the Giardini functions as artworld parkland, a place for reflecting on ideas mediated through modes of making from selected artists of participating nations. The Giardini is the kind of place one might test the relationship between art and nature, between anthropocentrist notions of human supremacy and the lay of the environment. Land once reclaimed from the sea casts meaning and experience through human art-making and in so doing circumscribes an ecosystemic stage for nationalized aesthetics.

As Gregson Davis notes in his introduction to Virgil, ‘an acute awareness of the disruption of the sociopolitical order is refracted through the artistic prism of the Eclogues’.7 Competition plays a key role as Virgil constructs a theme of innocence vs. experience in a context of artistic aspiration. For Stallabrass, the idea of a Biennale ‘not only embodies but actively propagandizes the virtues of globalization’.8 Participation is a matter of national display in a context of reflection and reification. A kind of competition is at play that has something of the Greek ‘agon’ of the ancient Olympics. The judges are itinerant members of ‘the art world’, but fittingly of course, it is in Venice that those wandering cognoscenti fulfil the original, Greek definition of nomas (i.e. those who roam for new pasture). For in the Giardini, the idea of a ‘nation’ is not merely transitory. It is site-specific, defined by its reclaimed terrain and irrigated by vestiges of national confidence.


1 See E. Panovsky, ‘“Et in Arcadia Ego”: On the Conception of Transcendence in Poussin and Watteau’, repr. in Meaning in the Visual Arts. New York: Anchor, 1955, pp. 295-320

2 See H. Nettleship and J. Conington’s Introduction to the First Volume of The Works of Vergil, rev. by F. Haverfield, 5th ed., London, 1898; repr. Hildesheim, 1963, pp.2-3

3 See J. Meeker, The Comedy of Survival. New York: Scribner, 1974, p. 81

4 See V. Martini, 'A Brief History of I Giardini: Or a brief history of the Venice Biennale seen from the Giardini (2005)'. Accessed June 30, 2013.

5 See Martini (2005)

6 See Martini (2005)

7 See the introduction by G. Davis to Virgil’s Eclogues, trans. L. Krisak. Philadelphia: UPenn Press, 2010

8 See See J. Stallabrass, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art. Oxford: OUP, 2004, p. 37