The painting is registered with certainty in 1644 in the collection of Cardinal Antonio Barberini (Aronberg Lavin 1975, p. 68). In the 1671 inventory, it was attributed to Annibale Carracci, and in 1812 it passed to the Colonna di Sciarra branch of the Barberini family as a work by Bartolomeo Schedoni. In 1911, Voss restored it definitively to Guercino.
Basing his study on the same depiction of the two shepherds in the painting of Apollo and Marsyas (Florence, Palazzo Pitti), commissioned in c. 1618 by Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi, Denis Mahon dated the Rome work to the same year (Mahon 1968,I, pp. 69–72 and 1991, p. 94), suggesting a period immediately after the painter’s stay in Venice, as described by Malvasia. Here he would have seen paintings with moralising themes in a natural context, which were popular on the market and especially linked to the activities of Domenico Fetti. It is also quite possible that the work entered the Barberini collection quite early, in about the summer of 1620 (Vivian 1971, p. 22), after it had been bought by Maffeo Barberini, an amateur poet who was to become Pope Urban VIII and who would certainly have appreciated the elegiac tone of the inscription. The dating is agreed upon by Salerno (1988, p. 126),while it is given as somewhat later, 1621–22, by Wild (1980, p. 60) and 1620–23 by Panofsky (1962, pp. 294–95).
Confirmed by the fact that the painting is the same size as the one in Palazzo Barberini, and by the detail of the shepherds witnessing the torment in Apollo and Marsyas in Florence, Mahon suggested that the painting in Rome was not originally planned as we see it today, but that it was a study or a trial which only later became the subject in itself, with the inclusion of the skull and the motto which ensured it such lasting success. X-ray examination of the painting has not only revealed some afterthoughts, but has also shown that the phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego” was originally written on a mound of earth in place of the brick memorial which can be seen now. Poussin repeated this subject in two famous works, the first of which was made in 1629 for the Barberini family, in whose residence he may well have seen the version by Guercino.