Giuseppe Arcimboldo

According to a saying that became popular in the 1960’s, you are what you eat.

Perhaps not as directly as in the marvelous and bizarre portrait heads created by 16th Century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo out of arrangements of fruit, vegetables, tree roots, fish, birds and other natural forms, but a sobering thought nonetheless as most Americans prepare today for a traditional Thanksgiving Day turkey dinner.

Born in Milan, Arcimboldo worked on frescos and tapestries in cathedrals in Italy and was also court painter to royalty in Vienna and Prague. Most of his traditional work has been lost, though a few examples survive, but his quirky and amusing portraits made from fruit, flowers and other elements of the natural world, as well as books and other man-made objects, remain, and attract attention to this day.

Some of his fruit/vegatable portraits were less obvious, disguised in what were ostensibly paintings of arrangements of vegetables in bowls, in which the face was revealed when the images was viewed upside-down, a precursor of the popular optical illusions circulated in later centuries. These upside-down portraits, when viewed in their orientation as paintings of fruit or vegetables in bowls, were, along with more straightforward images sometimes attributed to Caravaggio, among the earliest examples of still life as isolated subject matter for paintings.

The image above (large version here) is thought to be a likeness of Arcimboldo’s patron, Emperor Rudilf II, but it’s titular subject is Vertumnus, the Roman God of the seasons, whose penchant for changing his form to get what he wanted (like the favors of the goddess Pomona) personified the value of change in the practice of rotating crops to preserve the fertility of fields.

Arcimboldo’s striking visions have inspired others to follow in a similar vein, like contemporary painter Andre Martins de Barros (link contains NSFW material).

Arcimboldo’s paintings were celebrated by the Surrealists, who were always on the lookout for hallucinatory visionaries they could consider their precursors; and there has been some speculation that his inclination to see faces in arrangements of objects was the result of mental illness; a notion perhaps encouraged by his more disturbing images made of fish, birds and other animals, or the haunting images made of tree roots; but the truth is likely more prosaic. The Renaissance, a time of relative plenty and stability compared to the centuries that preceded it, not only provided the luxury of devoting more attention to art, but of indulging in puzzles, whimsies and amusement with the bizarre.

The luxury to enjoy the fruits of life beyond the necessities of survival, in particular the bounty of art, is always something for which to be thankful.

4 Replies to “Giuseppe Arcimboldo”

  1. You probably want to correct the spelling of the name from “Guiseppe” to “Giuseppe”.

    BTW great blog! keep up the good work!


  2. I saw this very painting just recently – face to face as it were. It’s in the current “Renaissance Faces” exhibition at the National Gallery in London. There are lots of terrific paintings in the exhibitions and it’s well worth going to see if you’re in London in the near future.

    There’s also a Taschen volume about Arcimboldo which is interesting.

    See my blog post Renaissance Faces at the National Gallery for further comments on the exhibition and links to details about it.

  3. I completely agree with your assessment that his visions may have been due to time for creativity instead of mental illness.

    It bothers me when people attribute creative genius to drugs or mental illness. Archimboldo’s works were stunning, and in them I feel you can see the roots of Surrealism, optical illusions and fantasy. Absolutely stunning.

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