How Giuseppe Arcimboldo Made the Familiar Bizarre

It was in Prague, that red-tile-roofed city of dreaming gothic spires, where the esoteric-minded monarch Rudolf II, the 16th-century ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, gathered thinkers and artifacts from throughout his domain, which covered Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and Moravia. It was Rudolf who English poet Elizabeth Jane Weston celebrated when she intoned in an undated valedictory ode: “May Caesar’s empire, which establishes rewards for the Muses,/ flourish; and may Caesar’s court long thrive.” For though Rudolf was largely ineffectual in matters of statecraft, he assembled a court of scientists, philosophers, and alchemists who were responsible for Prague’s enduring occult reputation.

Unconcerned with the drudgery of government, the Habsburg king was primarily interested in deciphering the occluded structures of our reality. Starting in 1587, he constructed a northern wing on his castle to exhibit his massive Kunstkammer, or “Wonder Cabinet.” Within its 37 cabinets, the emperor collected gargantuan cut gems and curious fossils, astrolabes of gold and silver, and intricate time-keeping contraptions. Most enigmatic, however, was a portrait of Rudolf by one of his court painters, the Milanese Mannerist Giuseppe Arcimboldo. 

In Arcimboldo’s portrait, the king is made to appear as if a cornucopia of delectable produce, artfully arranged so that his figure is suggested by the relationship between pumpkins and pears, grapes and cherries. Emerging from inchoate blackness, the king’s torso is composed of cucumbers, artichokes, cabbage, aubergines, and gourds garlanded in fresh flowers of purple and red. His rosy cheeks are apples, and his lips cherry tomatoes; peapods are eyebrows and hazel husks his mustache; his hair, a bouquet of red and green grapes, stalks of wheat, and that most New World of commodities, corn. The overall affect is simultaneously bizarre and beautiful. As his contemporary Gregorio Comanini remarked in 1591, “there is no fruit or flower not taken from nature and imitated with the greatest possible care.” Entitled “Vertumnus” (1591), after the Roman god of the seasons and change — and aptly, as Ovid write in Metamorphoses (c. 8), a deity “whose name fits many forms” — Arcimboldo’s eccentric royal portrait suggests not just regality, but those far more potent values of fecundity, lushness, fertility, and mutability. The king was delighted by his likeness, spending hours entranced by the portrait’s magic.    

Arcimboldo’s afterlives have been as shadowy as his biography. Full provenance can be traced for only 20 works. His oeuvre is spread across Austria, Italy, the United States, and Sweden. “Vertumnus,” indeed, is held at the Skokloster Castle in Uppsala, Sweden, having been pillaged during the Thirty Years’ War. 

The artist began his career in the Viennese court of Ferdinand I. His freshman efforts are rather unremarkable forays into portraiture and religious paintings; it was his turn toward the bizarre that preserved his name. In his 1566 “The Jurist,” located at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Arcimboldo depicts his stern-faced, black-capped subject as a series of desiccated fish and poultry remains; in “The Librarian,” painted that same year and also in the Skokloster collection, the central figure is constituted entirely of a pile of books. Straddling both the Italian and Northern Renaissance, no artist in either region produced work as strange, arresting, innovative, and aberrant as Arcimboldo, whose mature style was sui generis. Contemporaries categorized him as a comic painter, a purveyor of whimsical visual jokes, while his eccentric sensibility was not lost on early 20th-century artists, who were eager to enlist him into the ranks of the Dadaists and Surrealists. 

The Milanese painter may be simultaneously playful and mysterious, clever and discomforting, but as Roland Barthes bluntly writes in a 1980 essay on him, his “art is not insane.” There is a logic that bedevils either the Surrealists or Dadaists: Arcimboldo was doing something else. Barthes writes that he “makes the fantastic out of the familiar.” Everything “signifies and yet everything is surprising.” Should these works be viewed as mere visual puzzles, there would be playful wonder enough in his corpus (they were, after all, intended for a Wonder Cabinet). But as Barthes makes clear, to do so would be to eliminate other interpretations of his work, particularly the important strain of understanding Arcimboldo via the remarkable city in which he worked. 

His patron, Rudolf II, assembled in the Bohemian capital courtiers dedicated to alchemy, astrology, conjuration, divination, hermeticism, kabbalah, necromancy, and theurgy, who debated metaphysical theories from Neoplatonism to materialism. In understanding Arcimboldo, it must be emphasized that the court painter was an instrumental presence in his court. Peter Marshall writes in The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague (2006) that the Holy Roman Emperor “invited some of the most creative, original and subversive minds of the day,” including Arcimboldo. Tycho Brahe, the great silver-nosed Danish astronomer who observed Cassiopeia’s supernova of 1572; his student Johannes Kepler, who was the first to mathematically describe the revolutions of the planets; the English wizard John Dee and his unscrupulous assistant Edward Kelley, who conversed in the paradisical language of Enochian with angels in their Aztec scrivening mirror; the Italian heretic Giordano Bruno, whose heliocentrism included the worship of Apollo; and even Rabbi Judah Lowe ben Bezalel, who constructed a golem from the Vltava River’s mud. During the Renaissance, “Magic was a dominating factor,” writes Dame Frances Yates in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (2001), describing our world as ruled by a “mathematics-mechanics,” the heavens by a “celestial mathematics,” and the supernatural world by angelic conjuration. Rudolf’s orbit, it is clear, didn’t distinguish between the natural and the supernatural.

Neither did his court painter. “The Waiter” (1574) and “The Gardener” (c. 1587–90), both works strange and surreal, deserve to be understood as more than just puzzles. The former presents a tavern server as a pile of jugs, rolling pins, cups, and corks, all atop a wooden barrel, while the latter appears to be a still life of mushrooms, radishes, onions, and leeks in a pewter bowl when viewed right side up, but reveals its fat-cheeked eponymous subject when viewed upside down. Arcimboldo takes a metaphysical position here — perhaps even several contradictory positions. By depicting the emergence of order from disorder, the animate from the inanimate, and consciousness from matter, the artist seems to be venturing into materialism, though whether he was playing with these ideas or affirming them, I can’t know. As ancient Roman poet Lucretius wrote in his atomistic epic On the Nature of Things (c. 50 BCE): “What once sprung back from the earth sinks back into the earth.” As had been rediscovered a half century before, a gardener is nourished and constituted from the vegetables he grows and eats. 

Or, Arcimboldo’s vision may be Neo-Pagan, which understands all of us — jurists and librarians included — as seamlessly integrated into nature, ever flowing within and without it. 

Massimo Cacciari notes in Artforum that a “good deal of Florentine Neoplatonic Hermeticism can be felt in the… culture surrounding Arcimboldo,” referring to the esoteric philosophies popular among Renaissance humanists in Italy who revised the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, understanding all of our experience as being but a shadow of a transcendent realm. According to this reading of the painter, first ventured in 1955 by the art historian Francine-Claire Legrand in Giuseppe Arcimboldo and the Arcimboldoesque, he’s best understood as a pantheist, imbuing inert matter with divinity. The glimmer in the eye of a librarian made out of books or a cook composed of cutlery constitutes not just playfulness, but an expression of the enchantments coursing through everything. 

Whether materialist or mystic, at the core of Arcimboldo’s vision were two inviolate truths: that everything is composed of other things, and that all of reality is engaged in mutability. Such a doctrine, after all, is very near the same affirmed by those alchemists whom he would have encountered in the ornate hallways and courtyards of Prague Castle. Arcimboldo had change at the center of his imagination, where the same radical process of transformation can explain how dead matter gives rise to animate life, and a bushel of produce can appear as a king. 

That metaphysics is on display in the painter’s two great series, The Four Seasons (1563–73) and The Four Elements (c. 1566). The first series presents Spring as a woman who is a bouquet of roses, daisies, and lilies; Summer as a lady whose bodice is a sheath of wheat and whose head is a cluster of grapes, pears, and plums; Autumn as an aging gentleman erupting forth from a broken barrel, a harvest creature of squash and mushrooms, pumpkins and apples; and Winter as an infirm man constituted from gnarled branches, roots, and evergreen leaves, his chest brocaded with lemons. This is not to reduce humanity to an orchard, but rather to acknowledge the ways in which ingesting and defecating creatures are built from other things, where our short lives are implicated in change as surely as autumn leaves should fall and spring’s blossoms shall sprout. 

The Four Elements makes a similar argument about the non-existence of the static. A flock of birds, ducks, chickens, even a parrot and a peacock, all seemingly about to burst forth in flight, compose the figure in Air, while Fire’s hair is a mighty conflagration of small flames. Earth is built out of resting creatures, from cows to monkeys, and Water is naturally fluid, its subject a pearl-bedecked woman whose face is made of eels, lampreys, manta rays, oysters, and coral. Each of these eight portraits captures an isolated moment of ongoing mutability, before a bird takes flight or a fish swims away. In them, the greater is always assembled from the lesser — but the latter gestures always toward the former.  As for “The Librarian,” whose shoulder is a leather-bound red folio, his forearm a white volume, his fingers tasseled bookmarks, his beard feather-dusters and hair a bouffant of scattered pages in an open book — he is neither satire nor trick. The Librarian, built of literal words, a chimera of knowledge — that’s Arcimboldo’s self-portrait.   

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