The Triumph of the City

The High Renaissance


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Giuseppe Arcimboldo

born c. 1527, , Milan [Italy]
died 1593, Milan

Arcimboldo also spelled Arcimboldi Italian Mannerist painter whose grotesque compositions of fruits, vegetables, animals, books, and other objects were arranged to resemble human portraits. In the 20th century these double images were greatly admired by Salvador Dali and other Surrealist painters.

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 rulers Maximilian II and Rudolph II. He also paintedsettings for the court theatre there and developed an expertise for illusionistic trickery. His paintings contained allegorical meanings, puns, and jokes that were appreciated by his contemporaries but lost upon audiences of a later date. His eccentric vision is epitomized in his portraits “Summer” and “Winter” (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).



Giuseppe Arcimboldo:




Giuseppe Arcimboldo
The Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus

Although they may seem like a parody of portraiture altogether to today's spectator, Giuseppe Arcimboldo's "teste composte" (composite heads), as a contemporary theoretician of art, Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, called them, were generally given a positive reception when they were first shown. Partly, they were viewed as "grilli", as jokes, capriccios, or "chimaera". Set in relation to Horace's basic precept of "delectare et prodesse" (to be pleasing and useful), they could have a deeper meaning, too, making their apparent banality the object of scholarly discourse. Futhermore, many of these heads, although composed as accurately observed collections of different bits and pieces of reality (thus: personifications of the seasons, of the elements, of various professions), were actually intended as portraits and bore considerable resemblance to their sitters. In so doing, however, they were not thought disrespectful, but often viewed as acts of homage to the emperors Arcimboldo served as "court counterfeiter". (He was responsible, too, for the design of sets for courtly festivals and theatre productions). The "M" "embroidered" in the stawcoat worn by the allegorical figure of Winter, for example - like the Summer painting, this was signed in 1563 - is a reference to Emperor Maximilian II, who was crowned King of Bohemia and Hungary in the same year. The personification of Fire, executed in 1566, consisting of a match, an oil-lamp, a flint, a candle, burning wood, barrels of cannon and mouths of flintlocks, also contains an allusion to the Emperor. Hung over a coat-of-arms (showing the twin eagles of the Habsburgs) on the end of a bejewelled necklace around the figure's neck, is a Golden Fleece, an order founded by the Burgundian Philip the Good, an ancestor of the Habsburgs. The portrait's intention is even more pronounced in Arcimboldo's Vertumnus. The god of vegetation referred to here is Rudolf II who, according to Lomazzo, had asked the artist to make something amusing for him. The protean versatility which mythology ascribed to Vertumnus is attributed in this act of homage to the Emperor, with his vast variety of different fields of influence and activity. At the same time, the painting refers us to a principle of aesthetic metamorphosis which Comanini explains in 257 lines of verse in his somewhat verbose "Canzoniere" (1609). Here, Vertumnus calls himself a picture of deformity, bound to make people laugh. But paradox has it that ugliness of this kind is more beautiful than beauty itself. The chaos of the composition, it is said, relates to primaeval chaos, in which everything was mixed up. Arcimboldo, whose art, according to Comanini, outdoes even that of the antique painter Zeuxis, creates the illusion that we are looking at parts of the body when he is really showing us spiked ears of June corn, summer fruits etc. In this sense, the apparent chaos of the composition forms a unity, just as Rudolf II comprises many different things in one person. The ugliness of the figure is compared to that of the "Silen" admired by Plato (Socrates, in other words), who was apparently a "monster" on the outside, but whose inward qualities were quite magnificent.

Norbert Schneider


Giuseppe Arcimboldo



Blessed Be the Fruits of Culture

Prague around 1600




Look at the apple, look at the peach, how round and full of life, cheeks to right and left; notice, too, my eyes, of which one cerise, the other mulberry. Outside I look a monster, inside I bear noble traits, concealing a royal portrait.

Don Gregono Comanini
The Vertumnus of Arcimboldo


Alchemists attempting to make gold, astrologers studying the stars and the constellations and physicists desiring to build a machine of perpetual motion and to square the circle were amongst the Laputan circle of scholars that Emperor Rudolf II (1576—1612) assembled at Hradcany castle in Prague. The most important member of the Habsburg dynasty ever to reside there, Rudolf II was renowned as a generous patron of the arts. Nonetheless, many of his contemporaries were convinced that his hobbies kept him from the more pressing business of ruling. They were particularly suspicious of the Emperors passion for all things arcane: mythology, occult phenomena and the mysterious powers of nature. In short, the Emperor was regarded as an introverted weakling who was incapable of making decisions. Needless to say, Rudolf could afford to ignore such objections. He was supported in all his interests by a fatherly friend, a man of the "keenest intellectual powers", who was as highly respected as widely read and scholarly. This cultured man came from Milan and was named Giuseppe Arcimboldo. In his youth, Arcimboldo had designed stained-glass windows for Milan Cathedral. In 1562 he was called by Emperor Ferdinand I, Rudolf s grandfather, to the Habsburg Court, where he stayed on to serve three generations of the dynasty with great loyalty. He is first mentioned in the imperial records of 1565 as an official portrait painter to the Court. However, he was not just a painter. "Arcimboldo's noble intellect invented a great many clever, charming and unusual things for the magnificent revels held at Court", a contemporary reported. The masques Arcimboldo designed as settings for those court festivities must have been impressive. He once staged a mythological parade with real elephants and fake dragons, which were really horses in disguise. Today Arcimboldo is remembered primarily for his witty allegorical paintings. Flowers, fruits, fishes, birds, roots and even books are ingeniously arranged to form recognisable portraits. Drawing on botany, landscape architecture and hunting, Arcimboldo found all the inspiration he needed in the Habsburg "Wunderkammer", or cabinet of curiosities, which was overflowing with marvels: giant shells, sword fish, mummies, rare precious stones, stuffed animals and exotic artefacts from India. There was even a "devil confined in a glass". Arcimboldo did not look on his paintings as mere conceits in the Renaissance tradition; he meant them to be profoundly symbolic. The portrait of Rudolf II as Vertumnus, the Roman god of vegetation and the seasons, was certainly not meant as a travesty or a parody. On the contrary, the court portrait painter's intention was to honour his Emperor as the personification of generous patronage and cultural enlightenment. Arcimboldo's homage to his patron did not help Rudolf politically, however, for his brother Matthias still succeeded in deposing him. His reason for doing so was that Rudolf was no longer capable of reigning, owing to so many other distractions.
K. Reichold, B. Graf


The jewel in the Bohemian crown: The Hradcany castle ward in Prague





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