Paradise on Paper

Book Review

  • Arkadien: Paradies auf Papier, Landschaft und Mythos in Italien (Arcadia: Paradise on Paper, Landscape and Myth in Italy)

  • Edited by Dagmar Korbacher with contributions by Christophe Brouard and Marco Riccòmini
  • 272 pages, fully illustrated
  • Published by Berlin/Petersberg: Michael Imhoff Verlag, 2014
  • €29.95

The allure of Arcadia arises in large part from the tension between nature and art. This dream-time and dream-place embodies not only the pastoral ideal of a simple life in harmony with nature, but also gives form to principles of virtue, love, otium (contemplation and leisure) and what we would now call creativity, all within a fictional society of shepherds. This seemingly natural earthly paradise—a freshly-minted Golden Age—had to be evoked with great artfulness so that its actual artificiality could be forgotten. The ancient rhetorical principle “ars est celare artem” (it is art to conceal art) has many applications, but is particularly indispensible in the depiction of the bucolic, idyllic and pastoral. It is no coincidence that two early-16th-century bestsellers—Jacopo Sannazaros’ Arcadia and Baldassare Castiglione’s Cortegiano (The Courtier)—are devoted to the ideal pastoral world on the one hand and the ideal ease (sprezzatura) of the courtier on the other. In the final analysis, Arcadia can be understood as a reflection on “incarnation through art.”1

The dream world of Arcadia became a popular pictorial subject In the course of the 15th century, a phenomenon that formed the basis of the exhibition “Arcadia: Paradise on Paper” recently on view at the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett. Conceived and curated by Dagmar Korbacher, the exhibition and its excellent catalogue showcased works from the from the Kupferstichkabinett holdings: drawings, prints and book illustrations—an important component, given the theme.

The catalog’s seven sections follow the topics and history of the Arcadian ideal over two centuries from roughly 1440 to 1640, moving from representations of the Christian Arcadia of Eden to the melancholic Arcadia most famously captured in Guercino and Poussin’s celebrated paintings (not, of course, included in this exhibition) under the motto “Et in Arcadia ego.” Within this framework, the catalog presents “sites of humanism:” the inspirations, ideals and realities of landscape painting; Venice as a special focus of Arcadian ideas; mythological scenes in Arcadian contexts; as well as the closely overlapping theme of Arcadian repose (sleeping Venuses and nymphs and attendant erotic encounters).

Giovanni Andrea Vavassore Labyrinthus or Large Love Maze (ca. 1530–40), woodcut, nine single sheets, overall 86 x 119.5 cm. ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Volker H. Schneider.

Giovanni Andrea Vavassore Labyrinthus or Large Love Maze (ca. 1530–40), woodcut, nine single sheets, overall 86 x 119.5 cm. ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Volker H. Schneider.

The wide range of outstanding works illustrated and discussed in the detailed catalog entries includes Mantegna’s preliminary drawing of a dancing muse for his Parnassus painting (cat. 10), Marcantonio Raimondi’s allegorical drawing of a youth in melancholy pose (cat. 88),2 Domenico Campagnola’s reclining nude of 1517 (cat. 55) and what is perhaps the only completely preserved impression of Giovanni Andrea Vavassore’s remarkable nine-block monumental woodcut, Labyrinthus or Large Love Maze (cat. 15).

Given so much rich visual material, strong research, well-studied questions, clear lines of development, and critical protagonists, Arcadia makes an ideal exhibition theme.3 On view in Berlin were the positive aspects of this dreamland as well as its pangs of love and melancholy, both of which have, since antiquity, been constituent parts of Arcadia.

The central importance of Venice as a source of Arcadian images is beyond question, but it is important to note the proliferation of related work from elsewhere in Italy: from the Milanese Accademia dei Facchini della Val di Blenio, to Padua and Bologna, (cf. p. 57) to ancient gardens from Rome to Naples. This raises questions about the various socio-political fantasies that frequently underlay Arcadian longing—and are understood to have led toward Renaissance utopias. The catalog (page 58) also notes the influence of Arcadian ideas on depictions of the newly discovered lands outside Europe, especially America, which were embodied in so many 16th-century pictures. Prints depicting these subjects vacillate  between the ideal of the “noble savage” and assertions of pure deviancy (for example, cannibalism). This dark side of Arcadia calls attention to the fact that even in Italy the concept of an ideal pastoral world was not without its critics. Laughter and derision aimed at rural people (for example, the drawing of a “tramp” after Annibale Carracci, cat. 39 a), parodies of mythical personnel (especially of Parnassus), gender relationships that defy the laws of love, and moments of violence (for example the battle between Apollo and Marsyas, cat. 75-77) opened cracks in the Arcadian ideal and put it up for discussion.

Marcantonio Raimondi, Melancholic Youth (ca. 1507–08), pen and brown ink on paper, 17.6 x 10.7 cm. Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett—Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, KdZ 15231. ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Volker H. Schneider

Marcantonio Raimondi, Melancholic Youth (ca. 1507–08), pen and brown ink on paper, 17.6 x 10.7 cm. Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett—Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, KdZ 15231. ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Volker H. Schneider

Perhaps the biggest challenge, in view of the many pictorial representations of Arcadia, is the question of how these various types of representation consider and thematize their own position within the larger artistic and cultural sphere (this is especially important in terms of the representation of music). By this I mean more than just how different levels of culture were assessed—how, for example, does Vitruvius’ “beginning situation” of architecture in Arcadia figure? This implies, above all, categorical questions. The concept of Virgil’s wheel (rota Vergilii) asserted a precise match between each poetic mode and a rhetorical style: pastorals (Bucolica) were simple, unlike the Georgics or the high style of the epic Aeneid. But in the “camerino” constructed for Alfonso d’Este in 1529, this established hierarchy of genres seems to have been deliberately thwarted in the way the paintings were hung: Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians and other large format paintings occupied the main rank, while Dosso Dossi’s epic scenes from the Aeneid were displaced to a narrow frieze under the roof. An examination of what this meant for the production and reception of Arcadian prints, and for the thematic, formal and technical experimentation so characteristic of the field, may be the next step to take.

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  1. Winfried Wehle, “Menschwerdung in Arkadien: die Wiedergeburt der Anthropologie aus dem Geist der Kunst,” in Über die Schwierigkeiten, (s)ich zu sagen. Horizonte literarischer Subjektkonstitution, (Frankfurt am Main: V. Klosterman, 2001), 83-106. []
  2. The interpretation of this allegory has been hampered by misidentified attributes: in his right hand the boy holds, not scales, but the balance wheel of a clock. He sits on a clock whose time has stopped, and rests his foot on a diamond ring to which two hearts are chained (or two halves of one heart?). These hearts (or heart) should be interpreted as locked and resistant to temptation. The melancholy arises from the idea that “victory” over the chance and chaos of time and love means losing a significant part of a (young) life. The drawing should thus be seen in terms of the tension between inscription and image as a prototype for an emblem. []
  3. The catalogue bibliography missed a slightly earlier exhibition on this theme organized by Stephan Brakensiek. See Brakensiek (ed.), Verweile doch! Arkadien als Thema der Druckgraphik, 1490-1830 (Trier: Universität Trier Graphische Sammlung, 2010). []