Fortunately, the artist’s wit and wry sense of humor was well known, and Rudolf took the painting with a grain of salt. In fact, Arcimboldo had worked as the Hapsburg family’s portraitist for over 25 years, during which he often created imaginative “portrait heads” composed of sea creatures, flowers, fish, books, animals, and even dinner roasts.
While the quirky works of Arcimboldo made him famous during the 16th century, it seems his work has been forgotten for the past few centuries. It wasn’t until 1987 that an exhibition entitled “The Arcimboldo Effect” at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice reintroduced the innovative artist to the modern world. Since then, it almost seems as if the Renaissance artist is enjoying a personal renaissance, with exhibits at major European museums over the past few years. At the Louvre in Paris, a series of Arcimboldo pieces continues to be one of the most popular in the collection. In 2010, the Louvre even lent the paintings to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. for the exhibit “Nature and Fantasy,” marking their first appearance in the United States, and a clear sign of Arcimboldo’s influence and pertinence in the world of art.
“We wanted people to have the experience that the emperors in the Hapsburg court had,” says David Alan Brown, a National Gallery curator. “To have the same pleasure, as if they were playing a game, to first see what looks like a head and then discover on closer inspection that this head is made of a myriad of the most carefully observed flowers, vegetables, fruits, animals and birds.”
The Arcimboldo exhibits have given viewers an opportunity to delve into the mind of this oft-forgotten artist. He was born in Milan in 1526 to the Italian painter Biagio. He spent his early career designing stained-glass cathedral windows, tapestries and frescoes. His talent was remarkable, earning him a solid reputation in Milan. Before long, he caught the eye of Emperor Maximilian II, who summoned the painter to his Vienna court in the early 1560s.
The first known portrait heads were presented to Maximilian on January 1, 1569. One set of paintings was entitled The Four Seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall), and the other, The Four Elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air). In Winter, the subject wears a clock monogrammed with an “M” for Maximilian, that closely resembles one that the emperor actually owned. Summer’s ear is an actual ear of corn. Earth depicts a lion skin, drawing reference to the mythological Hercules, the Greek god to whom the Hapsburgs proclaimed they descended from. And Fire’s nose and ear are made of firecrackers. To further emphasize the royalty of the subjects, Arcimboldo crowns his figures with tree branches, coral fragments and even stag’s antlers.
Arcimboldo also went on to create many other portraits of figures from Maximilian’s court, including that of lawyer Ulrich Zasius as a surf and turf platter of chicken and fish, and of librarian Wolfgang Zasius with book spines for limbs and fanned out book pages for hair.
Indeed, the paintings were ultimately meant to amuse, but they also reflected the “majesty of the ruler, the copiousness of creation and the power of the ruling family over everything,” says Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, an art history professor at Princeton University who is also the author of Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting. “In some ways it’s just humor, but the humor resolves itself in a serious way.” Maximilian was so fascinated with the imagery, that he and many other members of the royal court went so far as to dress up as the elements and seasons in a 1571 festival organized by Arcimboldo himself.
When Maximilian died, his son Rudolf II continued to work with Arcimboldo, commissioning him primarily as a court portraitist. Arcimboldo’s absence from Milan coincided with the reign of a particularly stern Milanese archbishop who had little patience for local artists who incorporated humor into their work. The Hapsburgs, on the other hand, welcomed imaginative works. They promoted an avant-garde atmosphere in their court, and encouraged artists and intellectuals alike to think and act progressively.
According to accounts of colleagues and contemporaries, Arcimboldo embraced anything capricciosa, or whimsical. Whether it meant he was inventing a new instrument, writing poetry, or inventing wild costumes for royal pageants, the artist brought the fantastic to life. Yet it is more than just a sort of creative gimmick. Naturalism plays a key role in these pieces. Arcimboldo not only catalogued the flora and fauna, but related them to the human subject in a way that highlights his acumen. “Every plant, every grass, every flower is recognizable from a scientific point of view,” says Lucia Tomasi Tongiorgi, an art historian at the University of Pisa. “That’s not a joke. It’s knowledge.”
Unfortunately, during the Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648), the private collections of the emperor were looted, and a number of Arcimboldo’s paintings were carried off. And for centuries, the once famous artist seemed almost forgotten.
Arcimboldo would remain rather obscure until the 20th century, until the rise of Surrealism reinvigorated the taste for the quirky and quixotic. Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso admired Arcimboldo’s work, and dubbed him the grandfather of Surrealism. Since then, his works have continued to surface, and Arcimboldo has become a celebrated artist among the world today.