Giuseppe Arcimboldo

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"Arcimboldi" redirects here. For the cardinal, see Giovanni Arcimboldi.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Giuseppe Arcimboldo.jpg
Born 1526 or 1527
Milan, Duchy of Milan
Died July 11, 1593(1593-07-11)
Milan, Duchy of Milan
Nationality Italian
Known for Painting
Notable work

The Librarian, 1566
Vertumnus, 1590-1591

Flora, ca. 1591

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italian: [dʒuˈzɛppe artʃimˈbɔldo]; also spelled Arcimboldi) (1526 or 1527 – July 11, 1593) was an Italian painter best known for creating imaginative portrait heads made entirely of objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books.


Vertumnus, a portrait depicting Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor painted as Vertumnus, the Roman God of the seasons, c. 1590-1. Skokloster Castle, Sweden.
Four Seasons in One Head

Giuseppe's father, Biagio Arcimboldo, was an artist of Milan. Like his father, Giuseppe Arcimboldo started his career as a designer for stained glass and frescoes at local cathedrals when he was 21 years old.[1] He also married later on.

In 1562, he became court portraitist to Ferdinand I at the Habsburg court in Vienna, and later, to Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II at the court in Prague. He was also the court decorator and costume designer. Augustus, Elector of Saxony, who visited Vienna in 1570 and 1573, saw Arcimboldo's work and commissioned a copy of his "The Four Seasons" which incorporates his own monarchic symbols.

Arcimboldo's conventional work, on traditional religious subjects, has fallen into oblivion, but his portraits of human heads made up of vegetables, plants, fruits, sea creatures and tree roots, were greatly admired by his contemporaries and remain a source of fascination today.

At a distance, his portraits looked like normal human portraits. However, individual objects in each portrait were actually overlapped together to make various anatomical shapes of a human. They were carefully constructed by his imagination. Besides, when he assembled objects in one portrait, he never used random objects. Each object was related by characterization.[2] In the portrait now represented by several copies called The Librarian, Arcimboldo used objects that signified the book culture at that time, such as the curtain that created individual study rooms in a library. The animal tails, which became the beard of the portrait, were used as dusters. By using everyday objects, the portraits were decoration and still-life paintings at the same time.[3] His works showed not only nature and human beings, but also how closely they were related.[4]

After a portrait was released to the public, some scholars, who had a close relationship with the book culture at that time, argued that the portrait ridiculed their scholarship.[citation needed] In fact, Arcimboldo criticized rich people’s misbehavior and showed others what happened at that time through his art. In The Librarian, although the painting might have appeared ridiculous, it also contained a criticism of wealthy people who collected books only to own them, rather than to read them.[3]

Art critics debate whether his paintings were whimsical or the product of a deranged mind.[5] A majority of scholars hold to the view, however, that given the Renaissance fascination with riddles, puzzles, and the bizarre (see, for example, the grotesque heads of Leonardo da Vinci), Arcimboldo, far from being mentally imbalanced, catered to the taste of his times.[citation needed]

Arcimboldo died in Milan, where he had retired after leaving the Prague service. It was during this last phase of his career that he produced the composite portrait of Rudolph II (see above), as well as his self-portrait as the Four Seasons. His Italian contemporaries honored him with poetry and manuscripts celebrating his illustrious career.

When the Swedish army invaded Prague in 1648, during the Thirty Years' War, many of Arcimboldo's paintings were taken from Rudolf II's collection.

His works can be found in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Habsburg Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck; the Louvre in Paris; as well as in numerous museums in Sweden. In Italy, his work is in Cremona, Brescia, and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut; the Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado; the Menil Foundation in Houston, Texas; the Candie Museum in Guernsey and the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid also own paintings by Arcimboldo.


Arcimboldo is known as a 16th-century Mannerist. A transitional period from 1520 to 1590, Mannerism adopted some artistic elements from the High Renaissance and influenced other elements in the Baroque period. A Mannerist tended to show close relationships between human and nature.[6] Arcimboldo also tried to show his appreciation of nature through his portraits. In The Spring, the human portrait was composed of only various spring flowers and plants. From the hat to the neck, every part of the portrait, even the lips and nose, was composed of flowers, while the body was composed of plants. On the other hand, in The Winter, the human was composed mostly of roots of trees. Some leaves from evergreen trees and the branches of other trees became hair, while a straw mat became the costume of the human portrait.


In 1976, the Spanish sculptor Miguel Berrocal created the original bronze sculpture interlocking in 20 elements titled Opus 144 ARCIMBOLDO BIG as a direct homage to the Italian painter. This first work was followed by the limited-edition sculpture in 1000 copies titled Opus 167 OMAGGIO AD ARCIMBOLDO (HOMAGE TO ARCIMBOLDO) of 1976-79 consisting of 30 interlocking elements.

The bizarre works of Arcimboldo, especially his multiple images and visual puns, were rediscovered in the early 20th century by Surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí. The exhibition entitled “The Arcimboldo Effect: Transformations of the face from the 16th to the 20th Century” at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice (1987) includes numerous 'double meaning' paintings. Arcimboldo's influence can also be seen in the work of Shigeo Fukuda, István Orosz, Octavio Ocampo and Sandro del Prete, as well as the films of Jan Švankmajer.[7]

His painting Water was used as the cover of the album Masque by the progressive rock band Kansas, and was also shown on the cover of the 1977 Paladin edition of Thomas Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness.[8]

A detail from Flora was used on the cover of the 2009 album Bonfires on the Heath by The Clientele.

The 'soup genie' character Boldo in the 2008 animated film The Tale of Despereaux, is composed of vegetables.

Arcimboldo's surrealist imagination is visible also in fiction. The first and last sections of 2666, Roberto Bolaño's last novel, concern a fictional German writer named Archimboldi, who takes his pseudonym from Arcimboldo.[9]

The 1994 short story The Coming of Vertumnus by Ian Watson counterpoints the innate surrealism of the eponymous work against a drug-induced altered mental state.

Arcimboldo's influence can also be seen in the work of Vik Muniz.

Arcimboldo's works are used by psychologists and neuroscientists to determine the presence of lesions in the hemispheres of the brain that recognize global and local images and objects.

Art heritage, estimates[edit]


Giuseppe Arcimboldo didn't leave written certificates neither on himself, nor on the pictures. After death of Arcimboldo and his patron — the emperor Rudolph — the heritage of the artist was quickly forgotten, many works were lost. It wasn't mentioned in literature of the XVII—XVIII centuries at all. Only in 1885 the art critic K. Kasati published the monograph "Giuseppe Arcimboldi, Milan Artist" in which the main attention was paid to his role as the portraitist.[10]

With the advent of surrealism its apologists and theorists paid attention to formal experiments of Arcimboldo, and in the first half of the XX century many articles were devoted to heritage . Gustav Hocke [de] drew parallels between Arcimboldo, Dali and Max Ernst's works. In 1954 there were published a volume monograph of B. Geyger and the book by F. Legrand and F. Xu.

Since 1978 T. Dakosta Kauffman was engaged in Arcimboldo's heritage. He defended the dissertation "Variations on an imperial subject". His volume work, published in 2009, to a certain extent summed up the attitude of modern art critics towards Arcimboldo. Special article by Roland Barthes was devoted to works of the artist. It was published in 1980.[10]

Relation with surrealism was emphasized at landmark exhibitions in New York ("Fantastic art, dada, surrealism", 1937) and in Venice ("Arcimboldo's Effect: Evolution of the person in painting from the XVI century", Palazzo Grassi, 1987) where Arcimboldo's allegories were presented.[11] The largest encyclopedic exhibition of heritage of Arcimboldo where about 150 of his works were presented, including graphics, was held in Vienna in 2008. In spite of the fact that very few works of Arcimboldo are available in the art market, their auction cost is in range of 5 — 10 million dollars. Experts note that it is very modest for the artist of such level of popularity.[12][13]

Arcimboldo's art heritage is badly identified, especially it concerns his early works and pictures in traditional style. In total about 20 of his pictures remained, however there is lost much more, according to mentions of contemporaries and documents. His cycles "Four Elements" and "Seasons" which the artist repeated with little changes are most known. Paintings "The Librarian", "The Jurist (painting)|The Jurist", "The Cook", "Cupbearer" and some pictures blendes can be considered in the turned look.[14] Arcimboldo's works are stored in the state museums and private collections of Italy (including Uffizi Gallery), France (Louvre), Austria, the Czech Republic, Sweden, the USA.

Art interpretations[edit]

The main object of modern art critics interpretation are "curious" paintings of Arcimboldo. According to V. Krigeskort, these works are absolutely unique.[15] Attempts of interpretation begin with judgment of a cultural background and philosophy of the artist, however a consensus in this respect is not developed. B. Geyger who for the first time raised these questions relied mainly on judgments of contemporaries — Lomazzo, Komanini and Moridzhia who used the terms scherzi, grilli and capricci (respectively, "jokes", "whims", "caprices").[11] Actually, Geyger's monograph is entitled: "Comic pictures of Giuseppe Arcimboldo". B. Geyger considered works of the artist as inversion, when the ugliness seems in beauty, or on the contrary as the disgrace exceeds the beauty, entertaining the regal customer.[16] The similar point of view was stated by R. Barthes, but he reduced works of the artist to the theory of language, believing that fundamentals of art philosophy of Arcimboldo is linguistic, because without creating new signs, he confused them, mixed, combined, that is played a role of the innovator of language.[17]

Arcimboldo speaks double language, at the same time obvious and obfuscatory; he creates "mumbling" and "gibberish", but these inventions remain quite rational. Generally, the only whim (bizarrerie) which isn't afforded by Arcimboldo — he doesn't create language absolutely unclear … his art not madly.[18]

Arcimboldo's classification as mannerist also belongs to the XX century. Its justification contains in Gustav Rehn Hok's work "The world as a labyrinth", published in 1957. Arcimboldo was born in an era of the late Renaissance, and his first works were written in a traditional Renaissance manner. In Hok's opinion, during the Renaissance era the artist had to be first of all the talented handicraftsman who is skillfully imitating the nature, as the idea of fine was based on its studying. Mannerism differed from the Renaissance art in attraction to "not naturalistic abstraction". It was continuation of the late Middle Ages — the art embodying ideas. According to G. Hok, in consciousness there is concetto — the concept of a picture or a picture of the concept, an intellectual prototype. Arcimboldo, making a start from concetti, painted metaphorical and fantastic pictures, extremely typical for manneristic art.[19] In the "On Ugliness", which was published under Umberto Eco's edition, Arcimboldo also admitted belonging to manneristic tradition for which "...the preference for aspiration to strange, extravagant and shapeless over expressional fine" is peculiar.[20]

In work "Arcimboldo and archimboldesk" F. Legrand and F. Xu tried to reconstruct philosophical views of the artist. They came to a conclusion that the views represented a kind of Platonic pantheism. The key to reconstruction of Arcimboldo outlook seemed them in symbolics of court celebrations staged by the artist and in his allegorical series. According to Plato's dialogues "Timaeus", immemorial god created the Universe from chaos by a combination of four elements — fire, water, air and the earth, as defines all-encompassing unity shown by pictures.[21] In T. Dakosta Kauffman's works serious interpretation of heritage of Arcimboldo in the context of culture of the XVI century is carried out consistently. Kauffman in general was skeptical about attribution of works by Arcimboldo, and recognized as undoubted originals only four pictures, namely on what there was a signature of the artist. He based the interpretation on the text of the unpublished poem by J. Fonteo "The picture "Seasons" and "Four Elements" of the imperial artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo". According to Fonteo, allegorical cycles of Arcimboldo transfer idea of greatness of the emperor. Harmony with which fruits and animals are combined in the image of the human heads, symbolizes harmony of the empire under good board of Habsburgs. Images of seasons and elements are always presented to a profile, but thus "Winter" and "Water", "Spring" and "Air", "Summer" and "Fire", "Fall" and "Earth" are turned to each other. In each cycle symmetry is also observed: two heads surely look to the right, and two — to the left. Seasons alternate in an invariable order, symbolizing both constancy of the nature and eternity of board of the Habsburgs' house. The political symbolics also hints at it: at the image of "Air" there are Habsburg symbols — a peacock and an eagle, "Fire" is decorated with a chain of the Award of the Golden Fleece, a great master of which by tradition was a head of a reigning dynasty. However it is made of flints and shod steel. Guns also point to the aggressive beginning. The Habsburg symbolics is present in the picture "Earth", where the lion's skin designates a heraldic sign of Bohemia. Pearls and corals similar to cervine horns in "Water" hint at the same. [22][23]


Four Seasons[edit]

Four elements[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Giuseppe Arcimboldo Biography". Retrieved 2012-07-16. 
  2. ^ Maiorino, Giancarlo. The Portrait of Eccentricity: Arcimboldo and the Mannerist Grotesque. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. Print.
  3. ^ a b Elhard, K. C. "Reopening the Book on Arcimboldo’s Librarian." Libraries & Culture 40.2 Spring 2005. 115-127. Project MUSE.
  4. ^ ROSENBERG, KAREN (September 23, 2010). "Several Obsessions, United on the Canvas". NY Times. Retrieved 30 December 2012. 
  5. ^ Melikian, Souren (October 5, 2007). "Giuseppe Arcimboldo's hallucinations: Fantasy or insanity?". NY Times. Retrieved 30 December 2012. 
  6. ^ "The Mannerist Style and the Lamentation:". 2009-03-10. Retrieved 2012-07-16. 
  7. ^ [Literature:The Arcimboldo Effect: Transformations of the face from the 16th to the 20th Century. Abbeville Press, New York, 1st Edition (September 1987). ISBN 0896597695. ISBN 978-0896597693.]
  8. ^ See the 1977 Paladin edition of The Myth of Mental Illness
  9. ^ Bolaño, Roberto. "2666". Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, pps. 729, 784.
  10. ^ a b Werner Kriegeskorte (2000). Arcimboldo. Ediz. Inglese. Taschen. p. 30. ISBN 978-3-8228-5993-3
  11. ^ a b Ferino-Pagden 2007, p. 15.
  12. ^ Carol Vogel (September 16, 2010). "Arcimboldo Work Bought in Time for Exhibition". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-10-31. 
  13. ^ Blake Gopnik (September 17, 2010). "Arcimboldo's 'Four Seasons' will join National Gallery of Art collection". Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-10-31. 
  14. ^ Werner Kriegeskorte (2000). Arcimboldo. Ediz. Inglese. Taschen. p. 16—20. ISBN 978-3-8228-5993-3
  15. ^ Werner Kriegeskorte (2000). Arcimboldo. Ediz. Inglese. Taschen. p. 20. ISBN 978-3-8228-5993-3
  16. ^ Werner Kriegeskorte (2000). Arcimboldo. Ediz. Inglese. Taschen. p. 32-34. ISBN 978-3-8228-5993-3
  17. ^ Roland Barthes. Arcimboldo. p.335
  18. ^ Roland Barthes. Arcimboldo. p.338
  19. ^ Werner Kriegeskorte (2000). Arcimboldo. Ediz. Inglese. Taschen. p. 56-58. ISBN 978-3-8228-5993-3
  20. ^ Storia della bruttezza (Bompiani, 2007 – English translation: On Ugliness, 2007). p.169
  21. ^ Werner Kriegeskorte (2000). Arcimboldo. Ediz. Inglese. Taschen. p. 58-60. ISBN 978-3-8228-5993-3
  22. ^ Ferino-Pagden 2007, p. 97—101.
  23. ^ Werner Kriegeskorte (2000). Arcimboldo. Ediz. Inglese. Taschen. p. 44. ISBN 978-3-8228-5993-3

Further reading[edit]

  • Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann. Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting (University of Chicago Press; 2010) 313 pages
  • DaCosta Kaufmann, Thomas. Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting. — Chicago — London: University of Chicago Press, 2009. — 313 p. — ISBN 9780226426860
  • Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia (ed). Arcimboldo: 1526—1593. — Milan: Skira, 2007. — 320 p. — ISBN 978-8861303799

External links[edit]