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Jacopo Sannazaro and the Birth of the Western Dream of Evasion

Jacopo Sannazaro was born in Naples in 1456. He is the author of multiple poems in Latin and vernacular, but his pastoral novel, Arcadia, earned him a name in the pantheon of Italian literature. Such was his fame, King Friedrick IV of Aragon gave him a country estate, Villa Mergellina, as a gift in 1499 (The Arcadian poet: Jacopo Sannazaro, Warburg Institute, s.d.). This privilege is also a sign of their friendship, so much so that when the king was exiled after a French and Spanish coalition had overthrown him, Sannazaro decided to follow him. It is during this period that his masterpiece, Arcadia, was published without its author’s approval. Soon, it became a model for writers of pastoral literature all over Europe, especially in Spain, France, and England, shaping the Western fascination for other places, whether abstract or real.

The Origins of Arcadia

An innovative combination of poetry and prose, the novel is set in an idyllic landscape where shepherds and shepherdesses spend their days singing, engaging in sports competitions and tending to their animals in pastures. The narrator, who serves as both the protagonist and the storyteller, is Sincero, a Neapolitan herder. He is the writer’s alter ego. In fact, Sannazaro was known as Actius Syncerus, a name bestowed upon him by his colleagues at the Accademia Pontaniana. Like Sannazaro, Sincero embarks on a voluntary exile due to the political issues of his hometown and a personal disappointment (The Arcadian poet: Jacopo Sannazaro, Warburg Institute, s.d.). Similarly, the names of the other characters recall those of the academy members and the poet’s parents (Gajetti, 1977).

Figure 1: "The School of Athens" (Raphael, 1509-1511).

Arcadia is the novel of a lifetime. Sannazaro started it when he was a child, during his holidays in the countryside with his family (The Arcadian poet: Jacopo Sannazaro, Warburg Institute, s.d.). However, the celebration of pastoral life does not come from his life experience but from his classical sources. Among them, it is important to remember the founders of the pastoral genre: Theocritus and Virgil. Virgil was the first to set a bucolic in the Greek region of Arcadia. Additionally, he gave it a political and allegoric connotation (Monga, 1974). Sannazaro borrows his depiction of the space, but the Greek region is significantly transformed. Still, most of the conventional pastoral elements introduced in Arcadia are borrowed from the former poet, Theocritus: nymphs and shepherdesses, songs, fountains and birds (Kalstone, 1963). Another omnipresent conventional feature in Arcadia is the evocation of the Golden Age: in Greek mythology, this primordial state represents a period of peace and prosperity in opposition to contemporary problems. Although Sannazaro’s debt to Greek and Latin sources is undeniable, it does not compromise Arcadia's status as a breakthrough novel.

Tradition and Novelty in Sannazaro's Masterpiece

The first factor of novelty is its eclecticism, drawing inspiration from various sources. Apart from classical sources, Italian love poetry is another major model. The classic pastoral landscape serves as a background for the figure of the unhappy lover borrowed from Petrarch. However, Petrarch himself would introduce pastoral motifs like the retirement of the unsatisfied protagonist in the woods. Consequently, natural elements become signs of Sannazaro/Sincero’s mourning and evoke the loved one’s memory (Kalstone, 1963).

Meanwhile, the transformation of the classic setting reduces the dramatic dimension of Petrarchan poetry. Sannazaro’s depiction of the landscape is marked by theatricality and redundancy (Kalstone, 1963). As a result, the lover’s suffering becomes secondary. Unlike previous works from other writers that portrayed the Greek region realistically as arid and dry, Sannazaro’s Arcadia is lush and vibrant. Far from being a reproduction of the Peloponnesian peninsula, it is a “country of the mind and a place of poetry, pleasure, contemplation and […] love” (The Arcadian poet: Jacopo Sannazaro, Warburg Institute, s.d.).

Figure 2: "Pheme with a portrait of Jacopo Sannazaro" (Houbraken, n.d.).

The abstraction of Arcadia is crucial to understand its connotation as a place of escape. This concept can be conceived in two ways: an evasion in both space and time. The Greek region and Naples are constantly opposed to each other throughout the novel, as noted by the Italian author Gajetti (1977). The Greek region is symbolized by the aquatic element and is associated with consolation, representing the season of summer. On the other hand, Naples corresponds to fire, punishment, and winter. Similarly, as Gajetti (1977) explains, this idealized world, inspired by the pagan Golden Age, may also represent the Renaissance’s reaction against the oppression of religion. In this perspective, the Golden Age stands in contrast to the afterlife, symbolising humanity’s desire to restore its original relation to nature without the mediation of religion. Gajetti (1977) further notes that nature systematically corresponds to poetry through the metaphor of poetic creation in the novel. It can be inferred that in this bucolic place, poetry replaces religion and allows an experiential understanding of the world. Subsequently, eclecticism derives from Sincero’s journey between Naples and Arcadia and vice-versa: the poet’s alter ego embarks on a journey that is allegorical, autobiographical, political and cultural.

Is Arcadia a Utopic World?

For its evocation of the Golden Age, the pastoral genre is closely associated with utopia. Monga (1974) specifies that utopia, in its relation to the pastoral, derives from the image of a locus amoenus rather than a perfect government. This vision takes on a particular significance considering the context in which Arcadia was published in Europe. Jean Martin, the translator who published the first edition of the novel in French in 1544, clarifies in his preface that its objective was to relieve and amuse its readers during a period of conflict (Martin, 1544). In the sixteenth century, France was involved in the Italian Wars and the Wars of Religion. The reception of the Arcadia within the French literary environment shows that there has been a shift. While Sannazaro used the political events of Naples as a background to his novel, Monga (1974) suggests that Arcadia is not an idealized world but the idealization of a bucolic atmosphere, a psychological space where the poet takes refuge. For the French translator, political issues motivate the very publication of the novel, as he identifies it with a literary space of evasion.

Figure 3: "Le Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy" (Dubois, 1572-1584).

Ultimately, this idealized space is a mirror of reality and its challenges, conveying specific social values as well. A notable feature of this utopian world is the absence of conflicts. The only type of rivalry comes as a sport or poetic competition. In these contests, nobody prevails. An expert in the pastoral genre, Françoise Lavocat (1998), explains that the absence of women in some sub-genres of pastoral, such as the academic pastoral, conforms to this objective as it prevents arguments caused by the love for the same woman. Unanimity is achieved through multiple voices that share their truths during communal activities. Although the protagonist is Sincero, all the characters have equal space to speak their minds. Furthermore, each episode of isolation is temporary. Yet, as is often the case, nothing is as perfect as it seems. From this perspective, Lavocat's (1998) work is remarkable because she proved that the academic pastoral, one of the most famous types of bucolic literature, does not entirely eliminate social differences. The presence of a social hierarchy is evident not only in the poems by Theocritus and Virgil but also in Sannazaro’s works.

This final aspect raises a fundamental reflection. It can be argued that the dream of evasion depends more on the novel’s reception than on the work itself. Sannazaro’s description of Arcadia continues to be remembered in many Western countries, with the term “Arcadia” often immediately associated with an idyllic fictional place rather than the Peloponnesian region. However, upon a close examination of the novel, it is clear that this seemingly perfect place conceals multiple flaws. Hence, it is not surprising that Sannazaro concludes his masterpiece with the escape from Arcadia. Nevertheless, many readers and writers tend to overlook this aspect. Among the mentioned critics, many of them have diverging views regarding the book's legacy, perhaps because it gave rise to the original interpretations of the notions of “otherness” and “evasion”, providing modern researchers with intriguing perspectives on the European landscape during the Renaissance.

Bibliographical References

Gajetti, V. (1977). Edipo in Arcadia : miti e simboli nell'Arcadia del Sannazaro. Naples: Guida

Kalstone, D. (1963). The Transformation of Arcadia: Sannazaro and Sir Philip Sidney. Comparative Literature, 15(3), pp. 234-249

Lavocat, F. (1998). Arcadies Malheureuses. Aux origines du roman moderne, Paris: Honoré Champion

Martin, J. (1544). L’Arcadie de Messire Jaques Sannazar. Paris: Michel de Vascosan and Gilles Corrozet

Monga, L. (1974). Le genre pastoral au XVIe siècle : Sannazar et Belleau. Paris: Editions Universitaires

Sannazaro, J. (1961). Opere volgari. Bari: Laterza

The Arcadian poet: Jacopo Sannazaro · The invention of poetic landscape: Giorgione's Venice · Warburg Institute. (s.d.). Warburg Institute.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Raphael (1509-1511). The School of Athens [Painting]. Vatican Museums.

Figure 2: Houbraken, J. (1708 - 1780). Pheme with a portrait of Jacopo Sannazaro [Portrait]. Rijksmuseum.

Figure 3: Dubois, F. (1572-1584). Le Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy [Painting]. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts-Lausanne. 1584/#:~:text=Fran%C3%A7ois%20Dubois,%2DBarth%C3%A9lemy%2C%20vers%201572%2D1584&text=Ce%20tableau%20repr%C3%A9sente%20la%20tuerie,massacre%20de%20la%20Saint%2DBarth%C3%A9lemy.


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Debora Ricci

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