Giuseppe Arcimboldo is one of the few artists that I truly admire. His paintings are overwhelmingly whimsical, daring and original, bizarre and fascinating even after more than four hundred years. There’s no doubt that these richly individualistic paintings are works of a Genius of Mannerism.
Originality and whimsicality of Arcimboldo’s paintings have ensured him the title of the most interesting Mannerist painter. Admired by his contemporaries, Arcimboldo’s paintings remained puzzling even to the cynical and skeptical audience of the twenty-first century. His imaginative portraits such as ‘Summer‘, or ‘Vertumnus‘ shown above, all posses an unexplainable enigmatic power which leaves the viewers overwhelmed with thoughts and questions. What kind of person painted such marvelous paintings, especially if we consider the time period? And what an imagination?
‘Portrait’ above shows Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor as Vertumnus, or the Roman God of seasons. Rudolf was a peculiar ruler; a King of Hungary and Croatia who at one point decided to move his court from Vienna to Prague and focus on art, science and other hobbies rather than wasting time on dull state affairs. Who has time for politics and wars when there’s art and all sorts of life mysterious waiting to be discovered? Rudolf never married, and his sexuality was the subject of whispers at court, many believed that he was homosexual. Instead, he went on to become a patron of arts, showing a particular fondness for Norther Mannerism.
Rudolf’s other interests varied from astronomy, botany and science in general, all the way to alchemy. His court was an abode for all sorts of weirdos and individual minds of Europe at the time; along with a Flemish botanist Charles de l’Ecluse and astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, there was also a female creature at his court, quite unusual for the time, a poetess, Elizabeth Jane Weston, known for Neo-Latin poetry. Themes of her poems varied between idyllic reveries, odes to Rudolf and odes to herself.
Did I mention that Rudolf also kept a menagerie of exotic animals and botanical gardens? Though, that’s not so unusual for the Habsburgs. Rudolf was also fascinated with clocks, telescopes, musical instruments, water works, astrolabes and compasses; all of which he had specially made by the finest European craftsmen. He also had a ‘cabinet of curiosities‘ (Kunstkabinett); ‘encyclopedic collection of objects whose categorical boundaries were, in Renaissance Europe, yet to be defined’; in short, a collection of different things belonging to natural history, geology, art, archeology, antiquities, relics and all sorts of things that would be interesting for a Renaissance man. Considering the variety of his interests, I doubt that he would even have time for a wife. Free from chains of marriage, he had plenty of time for exploration. As a person, Rudolf seems like a strange mixture of Homo Universalis of Renaissance and a rather odd individual.
Fantasy or insanity? Now that’s a debate that could refer to both Arcimboldo and his patron Rudolf. Art critics have many times questioned Arcimboldo’s work, treating his ingenuity as a deranged mind. We can observe Arcimboldo’s painting style from two main aspects. Firstly, the enigmatic mood of his paintings is something that was very popular in Renaissance, it questioned one to think and use its reason to solve the problem. Secondly, the nature of Arcimboldo’s paintings reflects the atmosphere of the time; Renaissance world of harmony was slowly fading away, replaced by doubts and fear – that’s the spirit of Mannerism.
Arcimboldo’s portrait of Rudolf is perhaps the most vivid out of all his imaginative paintings. By skilfully arranging different vegetables, fruits and flowers from all seasons such as cherries, wheat, grapes, corn, plumes, olives, pumpkins, cabbage, apples, pears, onions, chestnut, figs etc, Arcimboldo created a portrait of an Emperor and a perfect personification of a Roman God Vertumnus. Arcimboldo used this formula of ‘portraits-allegories’ many times, one of my favourite renditions of this method is his painting ‘Spring’ which is composed entirely of flowers and leafs. Hidden-faces were quite a popular thing back then, as we can see in the engraving Landscape shaped like a face by Wenceslas Hollar. At first sight it’s a landscape, on the other it’s definitely a face. Landscape, face, landscape, face…
Although Arcimboldo had no direct followers, his work was hugely influential on Surrealists and Dadaists such as Dali, Rene Magritte and Max Ernst. This is the third time I’m writing about Arcimboldo as he seems to be a popular subject, both for me and my readers – I’ve written about his painting The Librarian and about the connection between his painting and Syd Barrett’s Vegetable Man.