The Arcadian poet: Jacopo Sannazaro

Arcadia is compounded of twelve chapters combining prose and poetry narrating the life and events of an idealized place where shepherds live surrounded by sport, music and beautiful landscapes. The narrator -Sannazaro's alter-ego- is Sincero a Neapolitan shepherd who due to political problems and a sentimental disappointment decides to abandon Naples and settle in the countryside. There, Sincero travels through this fictional land listening to the love or sad songs of diverse shepherds. A constant subject throughout the composition is the contrast between the city and the countryside, elaborating the idealization of the later as the place everyone should pursuit, living without huge ambitions in simplicity.

‘Inasmuch as he who does not climb, fears not to fall; and he who falls on the level plain (which rarely happens) with little ado rights himself by his own hand without harm. Wherefore you may hold it as matter true and undoubted, that he who lives the more hidden, and the more removed from the multitude, lives better.’ (Epilogue)

One characteristic is the melancholic mood of the narrator who can be considered in a voluntary exile and afar from his beloved. Apart from the idyllic and peaceful first part of the book, the second half also contains both heroic and tragic tones. Indeed, after a dream in which Sincero foresees the fall of Naples and part of the city-states of Italy due to the invasion of Spanish and French armies, he decides to come back to the city. Nevertheless, and after going through a path of cave fields, he finds out that his beloved has died.

The Arcadia that he represents is not a realistic one as other poets did by describing the region of Arcadia in the centre of the Peloponnesian peninsula. In Sannazaro, on the contrary, it becomes a country of the mind and a place of poetry, pleasure, contemplation and, above all, love.

The narrative and its structure are inspired on a diverse amalgam of ancient and modern sources. Authors such as Virgil, Theocritus or Ovid are imitated in some parts of the composition, as well as Christian authors or modern poets such as Petrarch, Dante or Boccaccio. In this sense, Sannazaro’s work has an archaeological side for he imitates the moods, the archaisms and Latinisms of these authors. An essential characteristic of Arcadia is that it was written in vernacular -Florentine- instead of the most privileged Latin used by most of the important poets. Moreover, Sannazaro not only used the Florentine, but also diverse dialects and Neapolitan, which makes it unique, contributing to the legitimation of these secondary dialects.

The main part of text was finished around 1482 but it was only accessible in form of manuscript but in 1502 an unauthorised version was printed in Venice during the absence of Sannazaro in Italy, what might be a reason to think of the author’s reluctance to publish it. However, since its creation several imitations appeared throughout the peninsula, rising Sannazaro’s fame. Even his friend the humanist cardinal and poet Pietro Bembo (--) prised it and contributed to its diffusion. Perhaps because of his fame and success of the pirate version, the good text of Arcadia was published in Naples in 1504, when Sannazaro returned from the exile.

Despite the remarkable success of Arcadia which became one of the best sellers of the sixteenth-century with a huge influence in later authors, Sannazaro, of humanist education, found unpleasing the universal prise to his book and his fame because these had no other foundation than ‘the judgement of the multitude’.

For a virtual consultation of Aldus Manuzio's 1514 version, click here.


Jacopo Sannazaro (1456-1530) was born in Naples in a relatively wealthy family. When he was still a child, his mother took him to the countryside, where he spent part of his childhood. There is where he likely began writing some parts of the future work Arcadia but it was not until 1482 when he returns to Naples and finished it as well as some vernacular poetry.

Being only around thirty years old, his Arcadia was an indisputable success in Naples and he became fond of the King Friedrick IV of Aragon and a member of the eminent Academy of the city. Its president, the humanist and poet Giovanni Pontano (1426-1503), gave Sannazaro the alias of ‘Actius Syncerus’. Thanks to these successes, Sannazaro became one of the eminent personalities of the cultural life of Naples and continued writing, although in Latin, epigrams and elegies. Among other privileges, the king gave him a country estate, Villa Mergellina, as a gift in 1499, reaching the peak of his personal life. Nevertheless, in 1501, a French and Spanish coalition overthrowing Friedrick IV from his Neapolitan throne. The king was sent to exile to France and Sannazaro voluntarily accompanied him, selling most part of his properties except the villa in order to help his defeated ex-lord. During his exile, Arcadia was published in Venice without his authorization but getting remarkable success.

When Friedrick died in 1504, Sannazaro retuned to Naples. That very year an official Arcadia was published in the city and he continued writing but in reclusion due to his economic and political difficulties. One of the few supporters he had during the last part of his life was Cassandra Marchese (ca. 1480-1569) who became his patroness. He managed to publish two important texts: De partu virginis (1521) which deals with the subject of the Annunciation but in an innovative heroic verse; and Piscatoriae (1525), a composition of eclogues very prised by his contemporaries in which shepherds were substituted by fishermen. Involved in a Platonic love with Cassandra, to whom Sannazaro dedicates eclogues and poems, there is a romantic story that tells how the old poet trudged more than two miles every day to visit her until he died in her lodgings in 1530.


Sannazaro, Jacopo, Arcadia & Piscatorial Eclogues [tr. Ralph, Nash],  Wayne State University Press, Detroit 1966.

Kennedy, William J., Jacopo Sannazaro and the uses of Pastoral, University press of New England, London 1983.

Sannzaro, Jacopo, Opere Volgari [ed. Alfredo Mauro], Gius. Laterza & Figli, Bari 1961.