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Pastoral poetry was notably popular in Italy in the early 16th century when works like Sannazaro's 'Arcadia' were published. It described an idyllic world populated by nymphs and shepherds, and carried with it a sense of longing and nostalgia for a simpler life. The sources for such works were the 'Georgics' and 'Eclogues' of Virgil.

An early pastoral novel was 'Daphnis and Chloe' by the Greek writer Longus (3rd or 4th century AD), which may have been the source for Bordone's painting of a 'Pair of Lovers'.

Pastoral subjects were translated into painting in Venice by Giorgione and the young Titian. In the 17th century artists and painters working in Rome such as Claude also created pictorial equivalents of pastoral idylls. There was a vogue for pastoral subjects in Holland in the 17th century; an example is Rembrandt's portrait of 'Saskia van Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume'.