Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Man of Letters (self-portrait), Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1587

Man of Letters (self-portrait), Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1587

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, like Hieronymus Bosch, was an artist several centuries ahead of his time. He was born into a distinguished Milanese family of archbishops, jurists and artists in 1527, when the Italian Renaissance was in full flower. His early life is largely mysterious, but we do know that his connections with local nobility helped secure him work designing frescoes and windows for Milan’s famous Duomo.

Early Influences

While serving his apprenticeship in Italy, Arcimboldo was exposed to a number of then-fashionable optical illusions and allegorical artworks, one of which was a majolica bowl containing a startling composite self-portrait by Francesco Urbini. Urbini’s piece includes a garland with the words “Ogni uomo me guarda comme fosse una testa di cazzi11. “Every man looks at me as if I were a head of dicks”,” and — true to these words — the portrait is a composite of fifty penises, including an “ear-dick” featuring a Prince Albert piercing.

Majolica plate painted with a head composed of penises, Francesco Urbini, c.1536. Ashmolean Museum Design and Technology, University of Oxford.

Majolica plate painted with a head composed of penises, Francesco Urbini, c.1536. Ashmolean Museum Design and Technology, University of Oxford.

In the Service of Emperors

Design for a tournament in honor of Rudolph II, costume of a cook. Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1568

Design for a tournament in honor of Rudolph II, costume of a cook. Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1568

In 1562 Arcimboldo crossed the Alps to Vienna for a position as court portraitist and festival organiser for Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand I (r. 1558-1564), who died almost immediately after his arrival. Fortunately, emperor Maximilian II (r. 1564-1576) and his young son, Rudolf II (r. 1576-1612), decided to honor Arcimboldo’s contract.

Rudolph became quite enamoured of Arcimboldo, who crafted grand costume pageants in the boy’s honor, such as a spectacle in which the six-year-old Rudolph played the part of a knighted dwarf in full plate armor among adults dressed as giants and monsters.

Rudolph II, age six, plays a dwarf to Giovanni Bona’s savage giant, Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

Rudolph II, age six, plays a dwarf to Giovanni Bona’s savage giant, Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

The Four Seasons

La Primavera, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1573

La Primavera, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1573

Arcimboldo was given wide latitude in his position as court portraitist. He painted some conventional likenesses during his career, but his enduring fame is based on a series of allegorical portraits composed of carefully chosen objects, particularly his Four Elements and Four Seasons, which were presented to Emperor Maximilian II on New Year’s Day, 1569.

L’Estate, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1573

L’Estate, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1573

When Maximilan’s court relocated to Prague in 1570, they sent Arcimboldo ahead to organize an elaborate inaugural pageant to coincide with Maximilian’s arrival. Six years later, Rudolph ascended the Habsburg throne.

L’Autunno, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1573

L’Autunno, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1573

A Bohemian Parnassus

L’Inverno, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1573

L’Inverno, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1573

Rudolf II was known by his contemporaries as the greatest art patron in the world, and Prague became, under Rudolf’s guidance, one of the leading centers for the arts and sciences on the European continent. The Rudolfine taste for outstanding decoration and fantastic imagery were legendary, and his ambition and insight as a patron and collector changed the way art would be viewed by future generations. He brought into his service some of the most important European artists, architects, scientists22. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), who was made Imperial Mathematician in 1599, and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who served as Brahe’s assistant and then succeeded him in 1601, established astronomical observatories in Prague., philosophers and humanists, turning Prague into a Parnassus of the arts.

Rudolfine Prague was a scene of communication, collaboration and commentary between artists, scholars and scientists. This interdisciplinary cross-pollination had a strong influence on Arcimboldo’s painting, helping him to combine classical allusion and allegory with contemporary painting techniques. In addition to painting, he devised hydraulic machines, created a new method of musical notation using colors33. Sadly, I’ve found no examples extant. and designed a series of wunderkammers, which efforts collectively earned him the sobriquet “Leonardo of Habsbourg.”

In 1587, Arcimboldo left the court in Prague to return to his family home in Milan with a purse of 1,500 guldens for his service to the Habsburg court.

Vertumnus

It was in Milan that he produced his most famous work, Vertumnus, a portrait of Rudolf II re-imagined as the Roman god of metamorphoses in nature and life, with Rudolf’s face composed of fruit and flowers, symbolising the perfect balance and harmony with nature that his reign represented.

Vertumnus (portrait of Rudolph II), Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1591. Skoklosters Slott, Balsta, Sweden.

Vertumnus (portrait of Rudolph II), Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1591. Skoklosters Slott, Balsta, Sweden.

Vertumnus reached Rudolph during the winter of 1591. On May Day, 1592, Rudolf II granted his childhood friend the title of Count Palatine, which guaranteed that he and his heirs would enjoy continued income and status for generations. Arcimboldo died shortly thereafter on July 11th, 1593, at his home in Milan.

Rudolf II died in Prague on January 22nd, 1612. Emperor Matthias did not continue Rudolf’s policy of patronage. Rudolfine Prague died with Rudolf, the court’s entourage scattered to other continental European cultural centers, particularly Florence, Madrid, Paris and Vienna.

In 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedish Army sacked Prague. After the Imperial collections and picture gallery were pillaged, Arcimboldo’s paintings were taken to Sweden44. The Peace of Westphalia made no mention of the spoils of war., where many of them, including Il Cuoco, Il Giurista, Il Bibliotecario and Vertumnus itself, remain. The rest of Arcimboldo’s surviving work is distributed throughout Europe, some in museums, some in private collections.

After Arcimboldo

Spring, Joos de Momper, 17th Century

Spring, Joos de Momper, 17th Century

Arcimboldo’s influence on his contemporaries was surprisingly minimal. Several anonymous artists produced paintings highly derivative of his style in the decades following his death, but none of them made any effort to move forward his ideas and themes, with the exception of a quartet of seasonal portraits painted in the 17th Century by Flemish landscape pioneer Joos de Momper and a few satirical composite portraits used in political posters and cartoons.

Summer, Joos de Momper, 17th Century

Summer, Joos de Momper, 17th Century

Napoléon Bonaparte, Anonymous, 1812. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France.

Napoléon Bonaparte, Anonymous, 1812. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France.

Autumn, Joos de Momper, 17th Century

Autumn, Joos de Momper, 17th Century

The late-18th Century movement from Realism to Impressionism borrowed little from Arcimboldo’s work, creating large-scale forms out of non-representational building blocks to mimic perception rather than layering symbolism upon symbolism.

Winter, Joos de Momper, 17th Century

Winter, Joos de Momper, 17th Century

It wasn’t until the 20th Century that Arcimboldo was rediscovered by the Modernists and Surrealists. We see echoes of Arcimboldo in the work of Pablo Picasso, George Grosz, Rene Magritte and, especially, Salvador Dalí55. Dalí called Arcimboldo the “father of Surrealism.”.

The Great Paranoiac, Salvador Dalí, 1936. Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands.

The Great Paranoiac, Salvador Dalí, 1936. Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands.

The 2007 release of Jape’s video for Floating has now — over 400 years after his death — brought Arcimboldo’s work into the 21st century. And, of course, it’s on YouTube.

This article was inspired by the beautiful — and now much mourned — Giornale Nuovo, to which it remains dedicated.

[del.icio.us] [Digg] [Facebook] [Google] [Reddit] [StumbleUpon] [Technorati] [Twitter]