Giuseppe Arcimboldo

1527 - 1593

Renaissance Art Map
Giuseppe Arcimboldo
    Life and work of Acimboldo
    Arcimboldo's Pictures
    Arcimboldo's Vertumnus
    Arcimboldo as a Scientist
    Arcimboldo's Drawings





Arcimboldo's Pictures


Although Arcimboldo was extremely famous during his
lifetime, he was soon forgotten after his death. There was
almost no mention of him in the 17th and 18th centuries, and
it was not until 1885 that a treatise by Dr. Carlo Casati appeared,
called Giuseppe Arcimboldi, pittore milanese,
in which he is mainly seen as a painter of portraits.




A little later he was also discovered by artists. The surrealists in particular regarded him as a precursor. In his book Die Welt als Labyrinth ("The World as a Labyrinth") Gustav Rene Hocke shows how pictures by Salvador Dali and Max Ernst contained some surprising, though rather superficial similarities. Several articles on Arcimboldo were published in the first half of the 20th century, and several more detailed ones in the second half. In 1954 Benno Geiger published his extremely thorough analysis I dipinti ghiribizzosi di Giuseppe Arcimboldi, and the same year saw the publication of Arcimboldo et les Arcimboldesques by Francine-Claire Legrand and Felix Sluys. In 1977 Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues wrote his poem Arcimboldo le merveilleux, and in 1978 Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann published a doctoral thesis called Variations on the Imperial Theme in the Age of Maximilian II and Rudolph II. Then there was Arcimboldo in 1980, with a text by Roland Barthes, and a book by Andreas Beyer called Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Figurinen, in 1983. There have been several other publications which cannot, however, be referred to in this book. There has been a growing interest in Arcimboldo, which is reflected in the large number of exhibitions which have been arranged in his honour, not to mention the prices which are paid for his pictures today.
We do not know why people ever lost interest in Arcimboldo's art. Perhaps he was misunderstood by the generation that followed, because they regarded him as no more than a clown who used to paint rather odd, abstruse and fantastic pictures, of which we only have a very few originals nowadays. Apart from these fantastic pictures, he probably painted quite a few more traditional ones. But many of these, too, seem to have disappeared. As far as I know, it has only been possible to identify two self-portraits (one of them a drawing), the stained glass windows in Milan Cathedral and the Gobelin tapestries in the Cathedral of Como. Stained glass windows and tapestries were very popular at the time and regarded as important in the history of art.



The Librarian
ca. 1566
Oil on canvas, 97 x 71 cm
Skoklosters Slott, Balsta, Sweden




Benno Geiger describes this Librarian as a "triumph of abstract art in the 16th century" and says he knows of "nothing more witty or closer to contemporary art than this clever painting". It is indeed quite clever, but more in the sense that Arcimboldo had a bright idea; the individual objects were painted quite realistically and in the classicist tradition of imitating nature. It was the artist's idea that turned them into a librarian. Hocke, who regards Arcimboldo as one of the "most obvious forerunners" of modern art, thinks of his pictures as simple, easily understandable translations. They were, however, "painted with intelligence as well as elegance, especially when we consider the curtain, which has been lovingly draped over the left shoulder of this fleshless man who is suffering from the cold."




Present-day publications are mainly concerned with an understanding of Arcimboldo's comical pictures, as Geiger calls them, which were enthusiastically admired by the painter's contemporaries and which are now studied with great interest by art historians and critics. This is hardly surprising: they really are unique. There have been innumerable copies and imitations, but Arcimboldo's stature has never been reached. At the Emperor's request, Arcimboldo repeated his series of The Four Seasons and Elements quite frequently. There was obviously a lot of enthusiasm for these pictures, and the Hapsburgs knew how to make use of it, by giving away paintings as presents. Their intention was not only to give pleasure but also to win supporters of Hapsburg political ideas.



Oil on canvas, 76.6 x 57 cm
Private collection, Bergamo




This picture of Spring belongs to the second of four series shown in this book. Two are complete, and two are without Autumn.
When we compare several paintings of the same theme, we notice that they are very similar to the first ones that Arcim-boldo made, but never mere copies. The overall composition was always the same, but occasionally he changed the format, and also the colour scheme, though he always preferred a dark background. Individual shapes were changed with regard to size and colour. Just as in a musical composition, we can speak of variations on a theme.




What is it that makes Arcimboldo's pictures so unique? A head in profile consisting of a thousand flowers is called Spring, another head made up of all kinds of fruit is called Summer. Water is the title of a painting in which all the creatures of the sea seem to have congregated in complete chaos. Then there is Earth, a head which consists of over forty different animals. A half-length portrait made up of books is a librarian. And there are many other compositions of this kind. The individual shapes, whether they are flowers, animals or fish, are always rendered accurately with regard to detail as well as delicate colours. Some of the pictures are in fact quite confusing. One particular painting, for instance, includes a pot full of different kinds of vegetables, but when you look at it upside down, it turns into the figure of a market-gardener.
If we inquire into the uniqueness of Arcimboldo's pictures, we are at the same time trying to understand them, and asking about the artist's cultural background and his philosophy. The publications of the experts listed above do not share a common approach. I shall therefore confine myself to a brief summary of their views, together with some quotations, and then leave the final conclusion to the reader. Geiger, whose book started off the entire discussion, shares the view of Arcimboldo's contemporaries. The title makes this quite clear: The Comical Pictures of Giuseppe Arcimboldi. The book itself fully corroborates the impression that Arcimboldo's pictures are "comical". Geiger's chief witnesses are, above all, Lomazzo, Comanini and Morigia, who described the paintings as precursors of "bar-room pictures" (DaCosta Kaufmann) and as "scherzo" or "bizarrie". This view was also held by E A. Orlandi, who, in the 18th century, described Arcimboldo as an extravagant painter; and Luigi Lanzi spoke of his paintings as "capricci", i. e. jokes, which the artist had conjured up with his paintbrush. And there is of course Geiger himself, who uses the word "comical", although he does not intend any negative meaning.



Oil on canvas, 74.7 x 56.5 cm
Private collection, Bergamo




The comments on Arcimboldo's Summer in the Louvre also apply to this painting. There are only minor differences.




That he does in fact think very highly of Arcimboldo's ability as an artist can be seen in a paragraph from the same page. He has a rather low opinion of the kind of "buffoons" who exist today and compares them with Arcimboldo: "I think if there are buffoons today, then that is nothing new. There have always been eccentrics who were probably also buffoons. But there is an important difference: if nowadays someone suddenly discovers the genius in him, even though yesterday he could not even draw, then that seems a bit insincere to me. When, on the other hand, the early pioneers discovered beauty in ugliness or vice versa, they were in fact faultless masters of their craft and, partly because they were relative beginners, had a certain straightforwardness about them. And because they were straightforward, they were original. Indeed, this ugliness surpassed all beauty and included the sort of satire that delighted the artist's customer, the jokes that were told again and again among the bored inhabitants of the various courts, it included those optical illusions and that artistic mimicry which Ficino, the famous Plato translator, used to call simulacrum. For me all this is just one more reason why it is worthwhile spending time and effort studying a painter who was indeed a genius, who used to entertain three emperors at the time of Titian and Tintoretto and who still entertains us today."



Oil on canvas, 76.8 x 56.7 cm
Private collection, Bergamo




This picture of Autumn differs from the one in the Louvre through its sharp contrasts of light and darkness. Some of the grapes, for instance, are almost black, whereas the face is generally very bright indeed. The change of format is made necessary by the tub, which is longer than in the other picture. What is particularly striking, however, is the relatively light background, which is rare in Arcimboldo's art. Beyond that, there are only very few differences. The level of artistic quality is the same in both paintings.




Geiger points out that his view of Arcimboldo's art is shared by Adolfo Venturi, a specialist in Italian art, who maintains that Giuseppe Arcimboldo's grotesque ideas have their roots in German etchings and in Leonardo da Vinci's cartoons: "It really seems as if Leonardo had guided the master's hand."
Geiger also believes that Arcimboldo's art was influenced by his environment, the Imperial court, his activities in the Art and Wonder Chambers and the company of learned men, including alchemists and magicians, who constantly surrounded the Emperor. Furthermore, he thinks it is quite likely that Arcimboldo was influenced directly "from above", that he received advice and suggestions from the Emperor himself. He says that the emperors had so much political discontent on their hands, so much internal strife caused by warring religous factions, that in the midst of all this they wanted to have some entertainment, relaxation and peace, at least within their families, and so they took great delight in the artistic jokes and comical pictures that Arcimboldo provided. Elsewhere in the book, however, Geiger expresses himself more cautiously about the influence of the court on the artist's style: "Whether Arcimboldo had a natural tendency towards cartoons and an illusionist style of painting or whether he had received instructions from his employers, who wanted to make fun of certain individuals - it is certainly true to say that he took a completely new path during his time in Prague, that he stubbornly persisted in creatin a style of his own which had never been seen before and was so unique that he is still famous for it today."



Oil on canvas, 76.8 x 56.7 cm
Private collection, Bergamo




As in the corresponding picture of Autumn, Arcimboldo emphasized the vertical dimension far more than he did in the painting of Winter in the Louvre, especially with regard to formal composition. But there are also differences in colour and surface structure. Take the bark of the tree stump: in his Louvre picture Arcimboldo emphasized the sharp contours and the ruggedness of the bark, whereas in this one he preferred a more blurred and gentle depiction of the surface.




Literary movements and the fine arts have always influenced each other. Geiger points out one particular link which, he says, shows Arcimboldo's ideas of art. A contemporary of Arcimboldo's, Rabelais, had written a novel in which he "cracked his satirical whip at everyone and everything like no one before him". The book was subsequently translated into German by Fischart, who also wrote a number of satires himself. These books were later illustrated by Tobias Stimmer. Geiger describes one of these illustrations, which is indeed very similar to Arcimboldo's paintings. It is a picture of the Pope, whose figure, as in Arcimboldo's art, consists of individual objects, with the intention of ridiculing the Pope. However, the similarity is purely superficial, because Arcimboldo's intention in his pictures was completely different, with the exception of one painting which Geiger sees as a take-off of Calvin. He admits, however, that he cannot really be sure that it is a picture of Calvin. Opinions do vary. Neither can we be certain about the satirical intention of a number of other paintings quoted by Geiger, because they no longer exist. To conclude my summary of Geiger's approach to Arcimboldo, let me quote a passage from his book which shows that even Geiger regarded the artist as more than a painter of comical pictures. According to Geiger, a line from a sonnet, There's Neither Shape nor Form in it, reveals "the painter's secret intention, which was more that of a philosopher than a superficial glance might lead us to believe. His method was to cast a cloak of art over nature, that is, to present the truth by disguising it. It was the logical consequence of the surrealist style he had acquired, or, as Comanini's Figino puts it: "Arcimboldi's skilful depiction of the imperceptible by means of perceptible illusions was quite unique."



The Lawyer
Oil on canvas, 64 x 51 cm
Statens Konstsamlingar, Gripsholm
Slott, Stockholm




Benno Geiger thinks this is a portrait of Calvin, whereas Sven Alfons maintains that Arcimboldo painted the lawer J. U. Zasius, who was one of Rudolph II's closest advisors. According to Comanini, it is the protrait "of a certain scholar whose entire face had been eaten by the French disease, so much so, in fact, that only a few little hairs had remained on his chin... He composed his face entirely of meat and fried fish; and it turned out to be such a successful picture that everyone who looked at it immediately recognized the true face of the law scholar." The man's face is indeed a ghastly sight, especially the eye of the plucked chicken which, still alive, is also that of the man in the portrait. Although his body is robed in a magnificent cloak, it contains nothing but thick books and files.




DaCosta Kaufmann looks at a completely different aspect in his thesis Variations on the Imperial Theme in the Age of Maximilian II and Rudolph II. DaCosta Kaufmann advocates a serious interpretation of Arcimboldo's art in the context of the culture in which he lived. He believes that recently discovered texts correct the view that Arcimboldo's pictures are amusing, eccentric and imaginative brainwaves.
He sees the portrait of Rudolph II, Vertumnus, not as a "bizarre" joke to make the Emperor laugh, and he rejects Geiger's view who regards Arcimboldo's paintings as "dipinti ghiribizzosi". Neither does he accept Francine-Claire Legrand and Felix Sluys' approach to Arcimboldo's art as "bizarreries picturales", or Paul Wescher's, who sees these paintings as "parodistic expressions of the microcosm-macrocosm idea." Rather, he prefers the interpretation given by Sven Alfons, Pavel Preiss and R. I. W. Evans, who regard Arcimboldo's paintings as a "system of correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm, the Aristotelian theory of the elements." However, DaCosta Kaufmann develops his approach to Arcimboldo's art on the basis of a newly discovered poem by Giovanni Battista Fonteo, called The Paintings of the Four Seasons and the Four Elements by the Imperial Painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, as well as a compendium of documents in connection with the festivities in Prague 1570 and Vienna 1571. He takes it for granted that Arcimboldo, who used to work closely with Fonteo, approved of Fonteo's ideas. Fonteo's manuscripts give us quite a lot of insight into Arcimboldo, explaining his art in terms of "Imperial allegories" which went beyond the purely visible and telling us how the subjects of the pictures were related to daily life at the court. They culminate in the statement that the depiction of Rudolph II as Vertumnus constituted a glorification of the Emperor. That there was indeed a close link between Fonteo's poem and Arcimboldo's pictures became obvious in the New Year celebration of 1569. It was customary for the Emperor's subjects to give him a New Year present. Fonteo's poem accompanied The Four Seasons and The Four Elements which Arcimboldo gave to Maximilian II. This shows that the pictures must have been Imperial paintings. The Emperor liked them so much that he had them put in his bedroom. What could have been more appropriate as a present to the "King of Kings" than the seasons and the elements of which the year and the earth consist?



The Lawyer
Oil on canvas, 70 x 54 cm
Private collection, Milan




Recent research has revealed that this second version of The Lawyer is probably not by Arcimboldo, even though it is very similar to the first one. The two most striking similarities are in the face and the large fur collar, whereas the plain chest in the first picture is quite different from the richly decorated one in the imitation. A thick chain with a large medal, almost reaching the man's stomach, hangs over an elaborately ornamental chest. The man in the portrait is probably Dr. J. U. Zasius, one of the closest advisors of the Emperor, and he may well have been given this particular medal and also the picture for his service.




DaCosta Kaufmann believes that the word grilli must have led to the wrong interpretation of Arcimboldo's works, even though Fonteo's poem should have made it quite obvious that the pictures were a glorification of the Emperor. The word grilli as used by Fonteo was understood by Lomazzo and his successors in its normal sense of "capricious", "amusing", "facetious". But pictures can hardly glorify the Emperor if they are meant to be amusing or facetious. On flirther investigation, DaCosta Kaufmann came to the conclusion that grilli must have had a different meaning in connection with Arcimboldo's pictures. The word could really only refer to the unique and unusual way in which an idea is expressed in the form of heads consisting of different objects, such as a farmer shown by his plough, a cook by his cooking utensils. This was certainly unique. According to Fonteo, there had never been anything like it, even if one went back to Alexander the Great and his legendary painter Apelles. Art historians have always found it difficult to identify Arcimboldo's pictures. DaCosta Kaufmann only recognizes four pictures which can be regarded as originals because of the artist's signature. A number of paintings were described in the same way by contemporaries, and there is therefore little doubt that they are genuine. Others are part of series of paintings that were never separated. But there are also several pictures which are not uniformly acknowledged as genuine by all art historians. The greatest difficulty is that Arcimboldo was often asked to repeat his series, and he always did this with a number of differences of varying importance, so that we often have more than one original.
According to DaCosta Kaufmann, the idea of the glorious majesty of the Emperor was based on the Renaissance concept of the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm. There is a principle of equality which unites the different parts of nature, i. e. the world at large (the macrocosm), and it also exists between macrocosm and microcosm. The microcosm is the smaller world of man himself.
"Similar things are seen as related to one another." Thus what seems at first sight rather exaggerated becomes acceptable allegory. The Emperor rules over the state, over the microcosm, over man. But as there are many levels on which the microcosm corresponds to the macrocosm, he can also be said to rule over the seasons and the elements.



The Cook
a visual pun which can be turned upside down,
ca. 1570 Oil on canvas, 52.5 x 41 cm
Private collection, Stockholm




Lurking in a big dish there is the head of a rather rough-looking chap, but when we look at it more closely it turns out to be composed of chunks of fried meat. When we look at the picture upside down, the helmet turns into a meat dish, with a slice of lemon lying on the edge and piles of fried meat in the middle. We can easily make out a sucking pig and an oddly distorted chicken. Somebody is about to cover the meat with a lid, to stop it from getting cold.



The Vegetable Gardener,
a visual pun which can be turned upside down,
ca. 1590
Oil on wood, 35 x 24 cm
Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Cremona




The picture as we see it here is upside down, in a sense. It shows a dark green bowl rilled to overflowing with various root vegetables.
When we turn the picture round by 180, this bowl full of vegetables turns into a head, chubby-faced and unpolished like the vegetables themselves.


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