Forgotten genius. He was the first to dare to paint a caricature of a powerful ruler

Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted witty, even surrealistic portraits of fruits, vegetables, fish and trees. In 1591, at the request of his bizarre patron, Rudolf II – Roman Emperor, King of Bohemia, Hungary and Croatia, and the Archduke of Austria from the Habsburg dynasty, he made a portrait and presented it as a pile of fruits and vegetables. With pea eyelids and a gourd on his forehead, the monarch did not look like a mighty ruler, but more like a salad for supper. No one before Arcimbold dared to portray the ruler in such a caricature. Even today, such an image would be a controversial portrait for the head of the country, let alone 432 years ago, during the Renaissance, when the role of the court portraitist was to paint flattering and advantageous images of rulers who were in their palace and presented to other dignitaries or brides-to-be.

Painting Giuseppe Arcimboldo – portrait of Emperor Rudolf II – Giuseppe Arcimboldo / Public domain

Fortunately, the emperor had a sense of humor and was already used to the artist’s style.

Arcimboldo has served the Habsburg family for more than 25 years and has made grotesque “composite heads” from sea creatures, flowers, roasts, and other materials. Already during the Renaissance, hundreds of pigments were produced to make colorful paints, the secrets of which were kept by court alchemists. It gave revolutionary opportunities to appear in the paintings of a new color scheme. Painted in oil on a 68 x 56 cm board, the image shows Rudolf II as Wertumnus – the ancient Roman god of change, seasons and ripening of crops and trade.

Hans von Aachen - portrait of Emperor Rudolf IIHans von Aachen – Portrait of Emperor Rudolf II – Wiki Images / Public Domain

For example, other portrait painters, such as Hans von Aachen, according to the canons of the Renaissance, presented the subjects in a favorable profile, with the outline of the forehead, nose, mouth and chin. Such a way of portraying resulted in more easily captured similarities. The controversial portrait of Rudolf II as Wertumnus, like other “botanical” paintings by Arcimbold, was a variant of still life – a genre of painting that reached Italy from Flanders and became very popular especially in Lombardy, where the artist came from.

Image The painting “Librarian” from 1566 – Giuseppe Arcimboldo / Public domain

There was also a plethora of meanings and symbols encoded in the variety of the monarch’s portrait. Even seemingly botanical details confirm the imperial subject. For example, Arcimboldo composites at the time contained highly exotic specimens, such as corn and eggplant, which sophisticated viewers would recognize as rare varieties from the New World, where so many European rulers hoped to expand their future influence. In a broader sense, the work presents the emperor as the ruler of time and nature.

“Air” from around 1566 – Giuseppe Arcimboldo / Public domain

Giuseppe Arcimboldo left no written notes of himself or his works. After the death of the painter and his patron – Emperor Rudolf II – the artist’s legacy was quickly forgotten and many of his paintings were lost. They were not mentioned in the literature of the 17th and 18th centuries. It was not until 1885 that the art critic K. Kasati published a monograph entitled “Giuseppe Arcimboldi, Milan Artist”, which emphasized the artist’s role as an exceptional portraitist.

Photos - from the series Photos – from the series “Four Seasons – Summer” and “Four Elements – Fire” – Giuseppe Arcimboldo / Domena publiczna

The famous Austrian art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote that art consists mainly of imitating certain forms by others so that they can acquire new meanings. One of the best examples that confirm Gombrich’s thesis are the paintings of the Italian Mannerist. Although his work has been forgotten for centuries, Giuseppe Arcimbold’s work was rediscovered in the early twentieth century by modernists and surrealists such as Pablo Picasso, George Grosz, Rene Magritte and especially Salvador Dali. All this thanks to his mastery, surprising imagination and courage, which allowed him to break the rigid rules of creating still lifes and create his own innovative compositions from their elements.

Image The painting “Four seasons in one head” – Giuseppe Arcimboldo / Domena publiczna
“Spring” painting 94 x 73 cm – Giuseppe Arcimboldo / Public domain

In recent decades, Giuseppe Arcimboldo has seen a great revival of popularity, especially thanks to the shows in the best museums, such as those in the Louvre, National Gallery of Art in Washington, National Gallery in Prague, Center Pompidou-Metz, or Bunkamura Museum in Tokyo. For example, the exhibition entitled “The Arcimboldo Effect: Facial transformations from the 16th to the 20th century” at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 1987 showed numerous “double meanings” of images, the influence of which can also be seen in the works of Shigeo Fukuda, István Orosz, Octavio Ocampo, Vika Muniz and Sandro del Prete, as well as in films by Jan Švankmajer. In 1976, the Spanish sculptor Miguel Berrocal – in tribute to the Italian painter, created an original bronze sculpture, intertwined with 20 elements, entitled “Opus 144 ARCIMBOLDO BIG”.

Sculpture of Miguel Berrocal Sculpture of Miguel Berrocal “Opus 144 ARCIMBOLDO BIG” – Public domain
Giuseppe Arcimboldo Giuseppe Arcimboldo “Woda” from 1566 – Public domain

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was born to a family of painters in Milan in 1526 or 1527. His father worked for the still-existing “Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano”, an organization that oversaw the construction and development of the famous cathedral. He started his career at the age of 21 as a designer of stained glass and frescoes. It was not until the age of 36 that he left Italy to become a court portraitist of Ferdinand I at the court of the Habsburgs in Vienna, and later of Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II at the court of Prague. He was also a court decorator and costume designer. When Augustus, the Elector of Saxony, visited Vienna and saw his work entitled ‘The Four Seasons’ he immediately ordered a copy with his own monarchical symbols.

“Waiter” from 1574 – Giuseppe Arcimboldo / Public domain

Arcimboldo’s conventional work on traditional religious themes was forgotten, but his portraits of vegetables, plants, fruits, sea creatures and tree roots were admired by the elite of the time. Over the years, art critics have been divided as to whether his paintings were whimsical fantasies or the product of a disturbed mind. However, most scholars share the view that, given the Renaissance’s fascination with riddles, puzzles and madness – for example, the grotesque heads of Leonardo da Vinci, far from being mentally unbalanced – Arcimboldo satisfied the tastes of his time.

The artist died on July 11, 1593 at the age of 67 in Milan, where he settled after retirement and worked at the royal court. In the last phase of his career he made his self-portrait. It was there, two years before his death, that his most beautiful paintings were created: “Flora” and “Portrait of Rudolf II as Wertumnus”, with which the emperor was so pleased that he awarded him the title of Count Palatine. The famous portrait of the emperor is now in Stockholm’s Skokloster Castle and was the painter’s last known work.

Self-portrait of Giuseppe ArcimboldoCar portrait Giuseppe Arcimboldo – Giuseppe Arcimboldo / Domena publiczna
Image Painting “Flora” – Giuseppe Arcimboldo / Domena publiczna

Giuseppe Arcimboldo is remembered as a 16th-century Mannerist who adopted some artistic elements from the Renaissance and influenced others in the Baroque period. Mannerism tended to demonstrate the close relationship between man and nature.

Winter from 1563 – Giuseppe Arcimboldo / Public domain

Arcimboldo also tried to show appreciation for nature with his portraits. For example – in “Spring” the portrait of a man consisted only of various spring flowers and plants. From the hat to the neck, every part of the portrait, even the mouth and nose, consisted of flowers and the body of plants. In contrast, in “Winter”, the figure consisted mainly of tree roots. Some leaves of evergreen trees and branches of others have become hair, and the straw mat is the costume of this portrait.

paintings Photos “Vegetable Gardener” from the collection of Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Cremona in Italy – Giuseppe Arcimboldo / Public domain

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