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The Fantasy World of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Portraits

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


The Fantasy World of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Portraits

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

And 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.

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 favourite court painters to the Habsburg emperors Maximilian II and Rudolph II. The story of Rudolph II needs a separate article but for now you should know that he was one of those weird rulers who had some mental issues, who were quite bad in politics, but put tons of money in art and collecting. Rudolph’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.


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

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

Vertumnus was the Roman god of metamorphoses in nature and life; the fruits and vegetables symbolize the abundance of the Golden Age that has 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 of 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 the 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 there. 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

Water is composed of a multitude of aquatic animals—the listing contains 62 species! The unusual multitude of species here is astonishing, as well as the inclusion of invertebrates, not only of the snail and the crab, but also of worms. On the other hand, 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

Like the other paintings in both series, Earth can be identified as an imperial allegory: this suggests 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 creatures in his menageries. A lion and a tiger were allowed to roam Rudolph’s castle in Prague, documented by the account books which record compensation paid to survivors of attacks, or to family members of victims

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fire, 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fire, 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

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

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 with the Four Seasons. Winter wears a cloak monogrammed with an “M,” presumably for Maximilian, that resembles a garment 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

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

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer, 1572, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

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 jewellery.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573, Louvre Museum, Paris

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573, Louvre Museum, Paris

The bulbous nose of Autumn is a juicy pear, the healthy-looking cheek is an apple, the chin is 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

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter, 1573, oil on canvas, Louvre Museum, Paris

The profile bust 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 spring carrying 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

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

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, 1563, Skokloster Castle, Sweden

It is thought to be a portrait of Wolfgang Lazius, a humanist and historian who served 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

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Jurist, 1566, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

The Lawyer shows 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).

The Godfather 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 on whom you ask. One modern critic has theorised 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 he was a misunderstood man of the people—rather than fawning over the Habsburgs, he mocked them in plain sight. But maybe he was just into flowers, vegetable, and nature–and wanted to combine them with the beauty of a human being.

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