Sunday, October 30, 2011

Giuseppe Arcimboldo – A Halloween Offering

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter,
Italian, 1564
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

In the years when I was between ages 4 and 6 my mother went through a period of serious illness that required her to make frequent visits to her doctor. While she was with the doctor I was on my own in the waiting room and, while waiting, would peruse the magazines that were available. In those days it was mostly Life, Time and Look, with the occasional Saturday Evening Post (based on my memories of their format). There may have been other magazines too but, since I couldn’t yet read, I can’t be sure of their identity.

One day, in one of the magazines, I remember seeing reproductions of some paintings that both fascinated and repelled me. They still do. These are the notorious “composite portrait” paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was the son of the Lombard (north Italian) Renaissance painter, Biagio. He was presumably born sometime in 1526 or 1527, presumably in Milan. In his youth he worked with his father, most notably on designs for stained glass windows in the cathedral of Milan.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Zacharias Naming His Son
from Scenes from the Life of St. John the Baptist
Italian, 1545
Milan, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

He also seems to have worked in collaboration with other artists on various decorative projects in and around Milan during the 1540s and 1550s. 1

In Milan, Arcimboldo could have become familiar with some of the works of Leonardo da Vinci, who had worked in the area at the beginning of the century. Leonardo’s famous Last Supper is in Milan and some of his other work, such as drawings, including his studies of grotesque heads, was also there at the time. Milan was also the home of some of Leonardo’s pupils and assistants, notably Francesco Melzi, Bernardino Luini and Giovanni Ambrogio Figino. 2

Leonardo da Vinci, Grotesque Heads
Italian, c. 1494
Windsor, Royal Collection

The mood of painting in these decades was that of what is known as Mannerism3 The art of the Mannerist period delighted in various kinds of visual extravagances, such as distortions of proportion, complex compositions (with figures often irrelevant to the supposed subject matter being given prominent place), grotesques and visual jokes. It was a sophisticated and deliberately “in” style of art, highly suited for an aristocratic and learned audience, but not well suited for straightforward didactic purposes. One could say, in fact, that in Mannerist art the complexity of the composition and elegance of execution took precedence over content and meaning.

In 1562 Giuseppe moved north of the Alps to offer his services to the King of the Romans (eventually also Holy Roman Emperor), Maximilian II. His move from Milan may have been precipitated by the episcopate of Cardinal (later Saint) Charles Borromeo. Cardinal Borromeo preferred artists who were able to focus their production on a more straightforward and serious presentation of the truths of the faith. In this way he anticipated the aims of what became known as Counter-Reformation art or Tridentine art (named after the reforming Council of Trent, which met in northern Italy from 1545 - 1563). At the imperial court Arcimboldo could hope to obtain work from the kind of sophisticated audience that had supported the Mannerist style in mid-century Italy.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Archduchess Anna, Daughter of Emperor Maximilian II
Italian, ca. 1563
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Initially, he painted portraits of the imperial family and court. He also worked as a designer for the kinds of courtly activities that were common in late 16th-century Europe: pageants, tournaments, etc.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Maximilian II, His Wife Maria of Spain and Three of Their Eight Children
Italian, 1563
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Sketch for a Sleigh
Italian, 1570s
Florence, Uffizi Gallery

But, beginning in the mid-1560s he also began the series of composite heads that fascinated me as a child and continue to fascinate me as an adult.

The composite heads are human forms that are composed of flowers, fruits and vegetables or sometimes of other items.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fruit Basket
Italian, c. 1590
Private Collection
The best known are several series of The Four Seasons, one of which is at the Louvre.

In the Louvre Four SeasonsSpring is made up of flowers and spring plants; Summer is composed of grains, fruits and vegetables (among them grapes, melons and eggplant).  Autumn is made from fruits and grains, while Winter shows bare branches, ivy and those stored up sources of vitamin C, lemons.

In Spring teeth are actually lilies of the valley, while peas represent them in Summer.  In Autumn a pear becomes a nose, while in Winter mushrooms become lips.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter
Italian, ca. 1573
Paris, Musédu Louvre
GiuseppeArcimboldo, Spring
Italian, ca. 1573
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer
Italian, ca. 1573
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn
Italian, ca. 1573
Paris, Musée du Louvre

 He also did a series of heads of the classical four elements: earth, air, fire, water.  Two of the Elements are in the Kunsthistoricsches Museum in Vienna.

Fire is a head composed of flames, flammable items and items associated with different forms of fire, such as candles, lamps, flint and parts of guns and cannons. Burning coals form the hair.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fire
Italian, 1566
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Water, who appears, from the pearl earring and necklace, to be a female, is composed of aquatic elements: fish, crustaceans, amphibians, coral, even a tiny seal. 4

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Water
Italian, 1566
Viena Kunsthistorisiches Museum

Two other paintings from this Elements series are currently held in private collections.

The first of these is Earth.  This head is made up of various animals, both predator and prey, all positioned to create the features of a head, including half of the head of an elephant, which creates the ear and side of the cheek, while a fox creates the cheek, even as it snarls at the hare, which substitutes for the nose.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Earth
Italian, 1566
Private Collection

Air is a bearded character, composed of the bodies of birds and birds nests.  The goatee beard is formed by the tail of a pheasant, whose head is being inspected by a rooster with a plumy blackish tail.  The nose is the head of a turkey and the brow is formed by the body of a duck.  The hair is made up of the heads and beaks of multiple small birds.  A fanning peacock creates a kind of ruff where the neck should be. 

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Air
Italian, 1566
Private Collection
The composite heads are sometimes “portraits” of actual individuals. For example, the well-known Vertumnus is a portrait of the Emperor Rudolf II (son of Maximilian II).

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus
Italian, ca. 1590
Skokloster (Sweden), Skokloster Castle

Other portraits are visual jokes, based on the profession of the “sitter”. The painting called The Librarian, made up of books, is presumed to be a portrait of the court historian, Wolfgang Lazius.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Librarian
Italian, ca. 1566
Skokloster (Sweden), Skokloster Castle

And some are both visual jokes and optical illusions, as for instance the painting titled, The Cook. In that painting we see a platter of roasted meats in the process of being uncovered. But, when it is turned upside down, it becomes a face and the platter becomes a hat.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Cook
Italian, 1570
Stockholm, National Museum

In his final years Arcimboldo painted a head called The Four Seasons in One Head, which may be a self-portrait. In it the flowers of spring, the grains and fruits of summer and autumn and the dead branches of winter all combine.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Four Seasons in One Head
Italian, c. 1590
Washington, D. C., National Gallery of Art

These heads combine a keen, almost scientific, observation of natural elements, vegetable and animal, and of man-made items such as cannons, candles and books, with a playful and ingenious sense of design. Some have seen them as the result of mental illness, but they are more probably expressions of the taste for oddity and the grotesque that can be seen in much of late 16th-century art, especially of the Mannerist art that was associated with the secular courts of the time (as opposed to art intended for the decoration of churches).

Bernard Palissy, Platter
French, c, 1580
Paris, Musée du Louvre

One need only look at the “rustic” pottery of Bernard Palissy in Paris, with its casts of creepy crawlies, and at the grotesque doorways of the house built by the brothers Taddeo and Federico Zuccaro on Via Gregoriana in Rome to see this mood expressed in the minor arts and in architecture.
Palazzo Zuccari, Doorway
Italian, 1592
Rome, Via Gregoriana 28

Much of this work was regarded by patrons as clever and interesting. Emperor Rudolf II clearly felt this way about Arcimboldo’s paintings because he placed them in his Kunstkammer in Prague. A Kunstkammer (literally “art room”) was a kind of private museum of odd and curious items and included not only paintings but scientific instruments, natural specimens, clever toys, small statuary, in short, whatever unusual object appealed to the owner. 5  Emperor Rudolf’s Kunstkammer was famous throughout Europe. To be placed there was a great honor to Arcimboldo.

However, tastes in art change and the collection was broken up. It was also the victim of looting over the years and was, therefore, widely dispersed. Arcimboldo’s work virtually disappeared until it was “discovered” early in the 20th century by the Surrealists. They obviously felt an affinity with the precise detailing and odd combinations of the composite heads. Since then Arcimboldo has remained a kind of art historical curiosity.

I think of his work as a fitting subject for Halloween, as it seems to fit easily into the atmosphere of disguise and pranks that prevails in relation to this very old festival, which heralds the approach of winter.

© M. Duffy, 2011

1. For information on what is known about Arcimboldo’s early life see:

  •  Kaufmann, Thomas Da’Costa. Arcimboldo: visual jokes, natural history, and still-life painting, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Arcimboldo : 1526-1593, edited by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden. Milano and New York, Skira, 2007. Catalog of the exhibition held at Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, Sept. 15, 2007-Jan. 13, 2008; and at Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Feb. 12-June 1, 2008.
  • Kriegeskorte, Werner. Arcimboldo, Cologne, Taschen, 1987.

2. See #1 above.

3.  Shearman, John K. G., Mannerism, New York, Penguin, 1967 is a well-known study of the period.

4. Arcimboldo 1526 – 1593, Nature and Fantasy, text by Silvia Ferino-Pagden. Exhibition brochure National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., September 19, 2010 – January 9 , 2011.   It is available online at

5. For informaiton on the Kunstkammer or Studiolo see:

© M. Duffy, 2011

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