Giuseppe Arcimboldo was an Italian painter, a mannerist of the 16th century. The 'Mannerism' was a transitional period from 1520 to 1590, which embraced some artistic elements from the High Renaissance and tempted the other elements in the Baroque period. The 'Mannerism' was the art of portraying a close relationship between human and nature. He was best known for creating imaginative portrait heads made of elements such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books, i.e., he painted representations of these objects on the canvas arranged in such a way that the whole collection of objects formed a recognizable likeness of the portrait subject. Although Giuseppe Arcimboldo was extremely famous during his lifetime, but unfortunately his work fell into obscurity soon after his death without any known reason. It may be that his work was misapprehended by the following generations. However, towards the end of the 19th century, there was a sudden surge of interest in his abstruse and fantastic pictures, of which there are very few original copies available. Apart from the fantastic pictures, it is also said that he painted quite a few more traditional ones. But many of these, too, seem to have disappeared.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Childhood And Early Life
Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s date of birth isn’t known and very little is known about his childhood too. However, there are certain evidences in history, which suggest that he was born in the year 1527 in Milan, Italy in a rich family of archbishops. When Arcimboldo was 21, he started his career as a cartoon designer, painting for stained glasses and frescoes at the local cathedrals, like his father Biagio Arcimboldo, who was also an artist. Arcimboldo later became the court portraitist to Ferdinand I at the Habsburg Court in Vienna and then to Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II at the court in Prague. He also painted scenery for the court theatre and became skillful at illusionistic imagery containing allegorical meanings, puns, and jokes.
When king Augustus of Saxony visited Vienna in 1570 and 1573, he saw Arcimboldo’s works and commissioned a copy of his “The Four Seasons”, which incorporated his own monarchic symbols. He is known for his eccentric and bizarre, Mannerist compositions of fruits, vegetables, animals, landscapes, and implements arranged to resemble human forms. The style was considered poor and absurd until the Surrealists revived the art of visual punning in the 1920s. He collaborated with Giuseppe Meda in designing the gonfalone of St. Ambrosein Milan, perhaps after 1558. In 1556, he received a commission to paint the south wall and vault of the south transept of Monza Cathedral in Lombardy, a work that was completed by 1562. Portions of a fresco of the Tree of Jesse on the south wall are attributed to him. In 1558, he was paid for designing tapestries for Como Cathedral. Due to the stylistic similarities observed in the windows of Milan and the frescoes in Monza, the designs of a tapestry representing St. Baptist the Baptist preaching and Baptizing (Monza, Mus. Duomo) is attributed to Arcimboldo. The Arch Bishop of Milan Carlo Borromeo probably paid for this tapestry. His work became especially well known throughout Europe after the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II exhibited Arcimboldo's paintings in the many residences of the Habsburg imperial family. In fact, Arcimboldo's bizarre pieces and grotesque portraits pleased the Habsburg emperor so much that he appointed the Italian painter, “Habsburg court painter” at Vienna and Prague and made him a count palatine in 1592.
From a distance, his portraits seemed to be simple human portraits. However, fruits, vegetables, tree roots were imbricated together to form anatomical shapes of human.
In his portraits, he never assembled objects at random. Each object was related by characterization.The Mannerism was a transitional period from 1520 to 1590, in which the art tended to establish a close relationship between human and nature. In the librarian, Arcimboldo used objects that signified the book culture at that time, such as the curtains that created the individual study rooms in the library. The animal tails portrayed as beard in the painting were used as dusters. His portraits depicted a close relation between nature and human beings. After the release of the painting, some scholars claimed that the portrait was a mockery of their scholarship. In the portrait, the librarian Arcimboldo ridiculed some wealthy people who collected books just to satisfy their ownership and not to read them. In ‘The Spring’, the human portrait was composed of various spring flowers and plants. From the hat to the neck, every part of the portrait, even lips and nose, were composed of flowers while the body was composed of the plants. On the other hand, in ‘The Winter’, the roots of the trees represented the human. Some leaves from evergreen trees and the branches of other trees became hairs while a straw mat became the costume of the human portrait.
Death And Legacy
After being liberated from the Prague service, Giuseppe Arcimboldo retired to Milan, where he died 11 July 1593 at the age of 66. Arcimboldo's conventional works, on traditional religious subjects have now become obsolete, but his portraits of human heads made up of vegetables, fruit and tree roots, were greatly admired by his contemporaries and continue to be a source of fascination even today. Art critics debate whether these paintings were whimsical or the creations of a deranged mind. A majority of scholars are of the opinion that, given the Renaissance fascination with riddles, puzzles, and the bizarre (for example, the grotesque heads of Leonardo da Vinci, a fellow Milanese), Arcimboldo, far from being mentally deranged, actually catered to the taste of his time. Many of Arcimboldo's paintings were taken from Rudolf II's collection when the Swedish army invaded Prague in 1648, during the Thirty Years' War. His works can be found in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Habsburg Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck, the Louvre in Paris, as well as numerous museums in Sweden. In Italy, his work can be found in Cremona, Brescia, and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.Arcimboldo’s paintings can also be seen at The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, the Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado, the Menil Foundation in Houston, Texas, the Candie Museum in Guernsey and the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid.
- “The Jurist”, 1566.
- “The Librarian’, 1566.
- “Winter”, 1573.
- “Spring”, 1573.
- “Summer”, 1573.
- “Autumn”, 1573.
- “Vertumnus”, 1590-1591.
- “Flora”, ca. 1591.
- “Vegetable Gardener”, about 1590.