The Astonishing Art of Arcimboldo

23 December 2010

Rudolf II - Holy Roman Emperor - Wikimedia
You meet them sometimes: people who just seem to have been born out of their time, somehow not quite at home or comfortable in the time period in which they find themselves. As far as his art is concerned, this is certainly the case with Giuseppe Arcimboldo (left).

You might, unless you know his work already, think that the above was created at some point in the twentieth century.


Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit, c 1590 - Wikimedia
Yet Arcimboldo was born in 1527. His conventional works have fallen in to oblivion but what survive are his masterful and imaginative portraits which are made from objects, such as fruit, flowers, fish, books and vegetables. These everyday items are arranged so that they become recognizable as something quite different.

Air, c 1566 - Wikimedia
Arcimboldo (sometimes spelled with an i at the end instead of the o) was born in to a family already steeped in the world of Renaissance art. His father was Biagio, known for his work on the Duomo in Rome. Arcimboldo would himself work at the Duomo in his early twenties and then later at the cathedrals of Monza and Como.

Fire, c 1566 - Wikimedia
It is believed that a great early influence in his life was that of his great uncle, Gianangelo, the Archbishop of Milan. It was at his house that the young artist met many scholars and artists who would help to lay the groundwork for the later defining moment in Arcimboldo’s own career – the switch from normal portraiture to something altogether more eccentric.

Earth, c 1566 - Wikimedia
It was also likely that Arcimboldo knew many of the host of German artists working at Milan Cathedral (and for the infamous Medicis) at the time. He would most likely have spoken their language as well as Italian – the boldo at the end of his name indicates a family origin somewhere in southern Germany.

Water, c 1566 - Wikimedia
He found royal patronage. In 1562 Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor requested his services as the court portraitist. Later in life he would perform the same duties for Maximilian II, King of Bohemia and later the Holy Roman Emperor.

Spring, 1573 - Wikimedia
By the time he left Milan he was already well known for his stranger work as well as for his more commercial efforts.  His close friend Paulo Morigia noted in his journal "This is a painter with a rare talent, who is also extremely knowledgeable in other disciplines; and having proved his worth both as an artist and as a bizarre painter, not only in his own country but also abroad, he has been given the highest praise, in that word of his fame has reached the Emperor's court in Germany".

Summer, 1573, Wikimedia
Yet the court portraits he would produce at the court of the Emperor are not what Arcimboldo is remembered for. His series of human heads made up from plant matter, sea creatures, roots and branches – fascinating and occasionally even a little disturbing. They were hugely well-liked at the time and were greatly admired by his generation as well as standing the test of time and remaining a source of captivation today.

Autumn, 1573 - Wikimedia
Little is known of the artist as a man and so that allows a debate to rage. Critics wonder whether or not these paintings of his were the result of the Renaissance attraction to brainteasers and challenges, nothing more than whimsical puzzles. At the same time they still wonder out loud whether or not he was stark staring mad.

Winter, 1573 - Wikimedia
Most people accept that Arcimboldo was most likely not deranged but catering (expensively so) for the tastes of his time. As well as a master artist then, this would also make him a very canny businessman. Riding the zeitgeist, he made himself a small fortune.

Flora, 1591 - Wikimedia
Arcimboldo retired to Italy after his service to the Hapsburgs and died in Milan in 1593 at the grand old age (at least at that time) of 66. The Register of Milan, the place of his death, records that he died from the retention of urine and kidney stones, which does not sound like a terribly pleasant way to shake off one’s mortal coil. However, the Register takes pains to point out that he did not die from the plague – which was possibly worse.

The Librarian, 1570 - Wikimedia
At his death his various artistic successes were feted by his contemporaries. Yet his reputation arose to new heights in the twentieth century when he was rediscovered by and influenced artists such as Dali, Fukuda and Ocampo.

The Greengrocer - WIkimedia

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The most recent homage paid to Arcimboldo by a contemporary artist can be found in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  It is by Philip Haas and it is inspired by Arcimboldo's Winter, which you can see above.

You can see more of Haas' fibre glass sculpture here.




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