(b. 1591, Cento, d. 1666, Bologna)

Et in Arcadia Ego

Oil on canvas, 82 x 91 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

This is one of Guercino's best-known paintings. It shows two young shepherds who have discovered a skull. The title could be interpreted as a sentence uttered by Death ("I too am in Arcadia"). But any moral significance to the work is lost in a moment of pure contemplation. Quotations from Correggio and Venetian art are completely in tune with the depth and sensitivity of feeling typical of Guercino.

This painting is directly connected to the Apollo and Marsyas that Guercino carried out for the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1618 (Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence): both pictures include the same group of shepherds. It is assumed that the Barberini canvas could not have existed as an independent composition prior to the Florentine painting, and so must have been executed later. In this painting, Guercino transforms the rustic onlookers into protagonists in a self-sufficient moralizing theme. An effective exploration of the memento mori is attained by the addition of the skull, with its worm and fly, and the inscription Et in Arcadia ego. An early work of Guercino, the painting was executed before his Roman period (1621-23) and after his voyage to Venice, where this sort of moralizing allegory was quite popular. The canvas has been dated alternately to 1618 and 1622.

The iconography of the memento mori in a pastoral setting, derived from the Ecologues of Virgil, was well known in Venetian and Roman art from the Renaissance onwards; yet here for the first time it is explicitly explained through the addition of the inscription.