The Fantasy World of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Portraits

Zuzanna Stańska 28 February 2022 min Read

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was the King of Mannerism. If you see a human portrait made of plants, vegetables, books, animals and generally speaking, stuff – you can be sure it’s Arcimboldo. These portraits were an expression of a Renaissance mind’s fascination with riddles, puzzles, and the bizarre.

Mannerism was a style in European art that was full of weirdness and exaggeration. Sophistication and artificiality were its second name. It favored compositional tension and instability. It favored everything that was as far from Renaissance balance and clarity as possible.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Beginning his career as a designer of stained glass windows for the Milan Cathedral, Arcimboldo moved to Prague, where he became one of the favorite court painters to the Habsburg emperors Maximilian II and Rudolf II. The story of Rudolf II needs a separate article but for now, you should know that he was one of those weird rulers who had some mental health issues, who was quite bad at politics but put tons of money into art and collecting.

Rudolf’s famous Kunstkammer (the cabinet of curiosities) was full of Dürers and Brueghels and great masterpieces of both Northern and Italian Renaissance. But Rudolf’s passion for collecting went far beyond paintings and sculptures. He commissioned decorative objects of all kinds and in particular mechanical moving devices. Ceremonial swords and musical instruments, clocks, waterworks, astrolabes, compasses, telescopes, and other scientific instruments, were all produced for him by some of the best craftsmen in Europe.

Arcimboldo painted a famous portrait of Rudolf – made entirely of vegetables and fruits.

Arcimboldo’s Portraits


Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf painted as Vertumnus, 1590–1, Skokloster Castle in Sweden.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf painted as Vertumnus, 1590-1, Skokloster Castle, Skokloster, Sweden.

Vertumnus was the Roman god of metamorphoses in nature and life; the fruits and vegetables symbolize the abundance of the Golden Age that had returned under the Emperor’s rule and the perfect balance and harmony with nature that his reign represented. Rudolf greatly appreciated the work. It is the weirdest portrait of a ruler ever created.

The Four Elements

Arcimboldo served the Habsburg family for more than 25 years. The first known composite heads were presented to Maximilian on New Year’s Day, 1569. One set of paintings was called The Four Seasons, and the other—which included Earth, Water, Fire, and AirThe Four Elements.

The allegorical paintings are peppered with visual puns and references to the Habsburgs. The nose and ear of Fire are made of fire strikers, one of the imperial family’s symbols. Earth features a lion skin, a reference to the mythological Hercules, to whom the Habsburgs were at pains to trace their lineage. But one thing is also very important here—the naturalism of the paintings. There are no fantastic creatures or plants. Everything is real. Water—is made up of 62 separate aquatic species. Arcimboldo corresponded regularly with the leading naturalists of his day to help produce a number of animal, flower, and plant studies.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Water, 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Water, 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Water is composed of a myriad of aquatic creatures—the list contains 62 species! The unusual multitude of species here is astonishing. On the one hand, he includes such common invertebrates, as the snail and the crab, alongside worms. On the other hand, some common edible fish are missing.

In this composition, Arcimboldo gave no consideration to the relationship of sizes among the individual animals, as can be seen by comparing the large seahorse with the comparatively small seal.

I love the tortoise here! He has a bit of a bitchy resting face here, doesn’t he?

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Earth, 1566, private collection
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Earth, 1566, private collection. WikiArt.

Like the other paintings in both series, Earth can be identified as an imperial allegory: suggesting that the Emperor rules over the elements and the seasons.

Many studies of animals by Arcimboldo exist, and many of these studies were used as sources for the creatures seen in Earth. All the animals in the head were taken from life because the Emperor gave Arcimboldo permission to draw the creatures kept in his menageries. A lion and a tiger were allowed to roam Rudolf’s castle in Prague, documented by the account books which record compensation paid to survivors of attacks, or to the family members of victims.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fire, 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fire, 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

The allegory of Fire combines objects that are more or less directly related to fire in a bizarre profile head. For example, the cheek is formed by a large firestone, the neck and chin are formed by a burning candle and an oil lamp, the nose and ear are contoured by firesteels. Prominently positioned in the picture is the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, beneath which the imperial double-eagle can be seen: a clear reference to the Habsburg House and the beneficiary of the series, Emperor Maximilian II.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Air, 1566, private colection
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Air (copy), 1566, private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This painting is identifiable with a picture of Air by Arcimboldo–it is a copy after Arcimboldo’s painting, or perhaps a workshop version from a later series of elements, or perhaps a repetition made for the emperor.

The Four Seasons

The same story goes for the Four Seasons. Winter wears a cloak monogrammed with an “M,” presumably for Maximilian, that resembles a garment that the emperor actually owned. Spring (1573) features 80 identifiable flora. It was all about the glory of the Habsburgs and nature.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Spring, 1563 Louvre Museum, Paris
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Spring, 1563, Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain.

The picture arrived in Spain possibly as a gift to King Philip II.

Of all the season-heads, Spring offers fewer surprises than the other three season allegories. The form of the head is simply filled out with flowers, the breast with leaves. At the same time, however, Spring surpasses all of Arcimboldo’s composite heads in its richness of species. 80 different varieties of flowering plants can be counted.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer, 1572, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Arcimboldo’s portraits: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer, 1572, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

In the profile bust of Summer, the cheek and neck area are composed of a large peach, quince, garlic, white young onions, yellow beets, and white eggplant; the mouth and lips are formed of cherries, and the open peapod within imitates a row of teeth. The nose is a young wild cucumber and the chin is a pear; the eye shines as a glassy sour cherry between two small pears.

The ensemble is completed with a head covering, effectively a cap or a hat made of fruit and vegetables bedded in greenery, from which emerge oat spikes resembling a hat feather. The clothing in woven straw has a single artichoke and the woven signature and date sophisticatedly integrated into the composition as jewelry.

Arcimboldo's portraits: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573, Louvre Museum, Paris
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573, Louvre Museum, Paris, France.

The bulbous nose of Autumn is a juicy pear, the healthy-looking cheek is an apple, the chin is a pomegranate and the ear is a large mushroom. The head is crowned with red and white grapes, reddish vine leaves, and a gigantic squash.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter, 1573, oil on canvas, Louvre Museum, Paris
Arcimboldo’s portraits: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter, 1573, Louvre Museum, Paris, France.

The profile bust of Winter is composed entirely of a gnarly tree-trunk. The nose is the cracked growth of a branch, moss forming the stubble of a beard and intricate branches forming the scrubby hair, in which an evergreen ivy grows. The mouth is composed of two fungi. The vacant, squinting eye is ingeniously created through a crack in the bark. From the breast protrudes a twig bearing two lemons. Again, the clothing is made of woven straw, in which one can make out a large M (for Maximilian II) and the firesteel referring to the Order of the Golden Fleece.

The Professions

Arcimboldo also made witty composite portraits of different professions, such as librarian, jurist, cook, and vegetable gardener, using objects associated with each occupation. In these innovative works, he filled the paintings with dense details that come together harmoniously to create a human form.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Vegetable Gardener, Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Cremona, Italy
Arcimboldo’s portraits: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Vegetable Gardener, 1587–1590, Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Cremona, Italy.

This painting belongs to a group called “reversible heads” which allow for a dual interpretation when turned upside-down, delighting the viewer with their metamorphosis. Viewed in one direction, the picture shows a traditional still-life: a metal bowl full mostly of vegetables. Turned upside-down, the forms alchemically come to life to produce a grinning face. A possible interpretation is that the figure represented is Priapus, a fertility deity and protector of gardens.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, 1563, Skokloster Castle, Stokholm
Arcimboldo’s portraits: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, 1563, Skokloster Castle, Skokloster, Sweden.

This painting is thought to be a portrait of Wolfgang Lazius, a humanist and historian who served the Holy Roman Emperors of the House of Habsburg. In 1957, art historian Sven Alfons was the first to conclude that this was specifically a portrait of Lazius. The work has been interpreted as both a celebration and a satirical mocking of librarians and scholarship. K. C. Elhard suggests that it may be specifically a parody of “materialistic book collectors more interested in acquiring books than in reading them.”

Ha, we all know such people! 😀

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Jurist, 1566, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
Arcimboldo’s portraits: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Jurist, 1566, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden.

The Jurist, also known as The Lawyer, portrays a member of the legal profession, whose facial features are depicted using meat and fish, and whose body is composed of legal documents. Two versions of the painting exist; the first, from 1566, is held by the National Museum of Fine Arts (Nationalmuseum) in Stockholm (acquired from a collection at Gripsholm Castle in 1866), and a later version is held by a private collector in Milan.

The features of the face are represented by the plucked carcasses of poultry and the sneering mouth by fish. It is not known if the subject is a caricature of the legal profession in general or based on a real jurist of the time. The German jurist Ulrich Zasius is normally suggested as the subject; the Nationalmuseum lists the picture in its catalogue as The Lawyer (Ulrich Zasius).

Arcimboldo as the Grandfather of Surrealism

In the 20th century, these double images of Arcimboldo were greatly admired by Salvador Dali and other Surrealist painters. The artist has occasionally been called the “Grandfather of Surrealism”—though whether it’s a compliment depends upon who you ask. One modern critic has theorized that Arcimboldo suffered from mental illness, but others insist he had to have had his wits about him to win and retain favor in such rarefied circles. Still, others have suggested that he was a misunderstood man of the people—rather than someone who fawned over the Habsburgs, he mocked them in plain sight. But maybe he was just into flowers, vegetables, and nature–and wanted to combine them with the beauty of a human being.



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