Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting

Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting

by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann




In Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s most famous paintings, grapes, fish, and even the beaks of birds form human hair. A pear stands in for a man’s chin. Citrus fruits sprout from a tree trunk that doubles as a neck. All sorts of natural phenomena come together on canvas and panel to assemble the strange heads and faces that constitute one of Renaissance art’s most striking oeuvres. The first major study in a generation of the artist behind these remarkable paintings, Arcimboldo tells the singular story of their creation. 

Drawing on his thirty-five-year engagement with the artist, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann begins with an overview of Arcimboldo’s life and work, exploring the artist’s early years in sixteenth-century Lombardy, his grounding in Leonardesque traditions, and his tenure as a Habsburg court portraitist in Vienna and Prague. Arcimboldo then trains its focus on the celebrated composite heads, approaching them as visual jokes with serious underpinnings—images that poetically display pictorial wit while conveying an allegorical message. In addition to probing the humanistic, literary, and philosophical dimensions of these pieces, Kaufmann explains that they embody their creator’s continuous engagement with nature painting and natural history. He reveals, in fact, that Arcimboldo painted many more nature studies than scholars have realized—a finding that significantly deepens current interpretations of the composite heads.

Demonstrating the previously overlooked importance of these works to natural history and still-life painting, Arcimboldo finally restores the artist’s fantastic visual jokes to their rightful place in the history of both science and art.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226426860
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/01/2010
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 11.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann is the Frederick Marquand Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University. His many books include Toward a Geography of Art, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-42686-0

Chapter One

A cucumber forms a bulbous nose; the open maul of a wolf simulates an eye; a striking iron is an ear; a shark is a mouth; a pile of books composes a torso. These are some of the startling details in the composite paintings by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526–1593) that are made up of disparate but related elements. The figures in Arcimboldo's Four Seasons are, for instance, composed of fruits and vegetables that grow in each of those seasons. Vegetables and fruits constitute the head and hair of Summer (Figure 0.1), while ears of grain form its torso and a straw fillet crowns its top. His series the Four Elements, based on the elements of traditional cosmology, likewise employ birds, animals, and aquatic creatures to constitute Air, Earth, and Water respectively while Fire flares forth with features fashioned from flames and objects that produce fire or were forged in it. Figures of a cook and a wine steward are similarly made of objects pertaining to their activities: pots, pans, and a wine barrel. Paintings of a man made of books, and a head of meat with books attached, may represent a librarian and a jurist. Flora (Figure 0.2) is made of flowers, Vertumnus (Figure 0.3) is composed of fruits and flowers from all seasons, and one recently discovered painting shows signs of all four seasons within a single head.

Several paintings by Arcimboldo work not only as composite heads, like mosaics formed from different objects, but also as coherent images when they are turned upside down. Viewed one way, these pictures resemble other composite heads made of fruits, meat, or vegetables (Figure 0.4). Turned upside down, they can be apprehended as a basket of fruit, a platter of meat, or a bowl of root vegetables and nuts.

Though Arcimboldo's composites are relatively few in number—only some twenty by the artist himself have survived—they have recently gained him celebrity status. A large color illustration of Summer has adorned page one of the New York Times arts section, and a small color reproduction of Vertumnus has been on the newspaper's front page. Crowds clamored to see the first monographic exhibition devoted to this artist who lived from 1526 to 1593; it received outstanding reviews. Pamphlets, children's books, and bric à brac of all kinds related to Arcimboldo do a brisk business at exhibition shops and on the Web.

The recent interest in Arcimboldo results, no doubt, primarily from responses to pictures like those published in the Times. His images, particularly those of the former non-invertible sort, have become almost ubiquitous in contemporary visual culture. His paintings of composites are illustrated, copied, and knocked off in photographs, sculptures, films, and advertisements. They inspire brands of food: Arcimboldo's painting Summer now serves as a logo for a brand of tomatoes sold in Italy that bears his name ("Arcimboldo Pachino"). Restaurants in New York, Oslo, Prague, Barcelona, Milan, Turin, Venice, and Buenos Aires are named after him. The soup genie boldo in the animated film The Tale of Despereaux (2008), an Arcimboldesque head of fruits and vegetables, pays tribute to the artist's inventions. Most striking of all is a large three-dimensional composite head that forms the entrance to a restaurant at the theme park which is named after the comic book character Asterix, located thirty kilometers north of Paris (Figure 0.5).

This is also not the first time in recent memory that Arcimboldo's pictures have sparked broader interest; the history of the artist's reception is revealing. Arcimboldo's imagery had already entered the world of capitalism by the 1930s when his painting Vertumnus (then identified as "The Gardener"), with its prominent grapes and fruits, served as an emblem for the Bertuzzi juice company. The commercialization of Arcimboldo's imagery followed closely upon his "rediscovery" earlier in the twentieth century when, after years of neglect by artists and art historians, he came to be regarded as the grandfather of surrealism and fantastic art. The museum of modern Art in New York exhibited him accordingly. In any case, even though the role of Arcimboldo's composite heads as the inspiration for artists like Dali and other modernist masters of the double image may subsequently have been challenged, the surrealists and Picasso certainly knew his work.

A 1987 exhibition in Venice carried this line of interpretation even further. In presenting most of Arcimboldo's paintings and drawings along with copies after them and works inspired by his inventions, it placed Arcimboldo in the history of artistic exploration of the "hidden" image, emphasizing his relation to many aspects of twentieth-century art. Although this approach received a good deal of criticism, Arcimboldo's impact on art of the twentieth century seems undeniable. Several contemporary artists have explicitly acknowledged his influence on their work. His paintings have, needless to say, also continued to be shown in many more exhibitions.

The reception of Arcimboldo resonates with certain aspects of contemporary culture. The popular revival of his art seems almost emblematic of an age in which images are universally commercialized, rapidly disseminated, and even disaggregated; their digital reproductions can be morphed and recombined by cutting and pasting. Arcimboldo's personifications may even seem to epitomize a line of contemporary cultural criticism that has described how images are disjoined from their natural origins and become their virtual or visual simulacra.

Yet while Arcimboldo images have gained contemporary celebrity, their place in the history of European art—and, more broadly, the history of the culture of the artist's own time—remains unsettled. Before the past two decades, if most historians of renaissance art paid any attention at all to Arcimboldo, he was regarded as a minor if amusing curiosity. Growing attention has only slowly led to his paintings finding a place on the walls of major museums where the art of the renaissance is displayed; this change in fortune did not really begin to occur until the 1980s. And even though the 1987 exhibition brought the artist to the notice of a broader public, one critic could still respond by dismissing Arcimboldo as little more than a "competent journeyman" whose fame was due to the single activity of popularizing composite images.

While Arcimboldo's composites may now have gained him notoriety, his fame may have come at the cost of the disconnection of his oeuvre from its own time. Much of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century reception of Arcimboldo has related him to modernist painting, especially in tendencies toward fantasy and surrealism. Efforts to understand the original context in which his composite heads were painted, and the audience that would first have received and appreciated them, have thus been overshadowed. What Arcimboldo's pictures might have meant to his contemporaries, and what the impact of those pictures might have been in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries beyond being copied or directly imitated, remains at issue.

A large recent exhibition of Arcimboldo attempted to redress some of these problems by concentrating on the artist as a historical figure. Eschewing the treatment of his paintings as forerunners of some currents in modern art, it focused instead on the artist's historical position and emphasized multiple facets of his oeuvre. Following some other tendencies in scholarship, it sought to portray Arcimboldo much more as an organizer of pageants and an observer of nature, for whom painting composite heads was just one of many tasks.

Yet the exhibition catalogue also reveals that considerable differences of opinion continue to exist concerning the painter and his work. Rival and contradictory views of the artist confront each other in the catalogue essays. Interpretations of the composite heads thus remain to be disentangled, rectified, and reconciled. While some sources of Arcimboldo's paintings have been adduced and focus has been redirected to them, the paintings themselves have not been fully elucidated. A more complete understanding of the origins, character, and impact of Arcimboldo's composite paintings in relation to the artist's life, oeuvre, and situation in the history of art and culture is still needed. That is the primary goal of this book.

What then may be said about the historical figure of Arcimboldo, and what are some major lines of interpretation of his work? looked at more closely in the light of his biography, even as it has been reconstructed recently, his current celebrity may appear quite surprising. Arcimboldo was born in Milan in 1526; his early career hardly seems to foretell his subsequent fame, nor does it offer many overt clues to the origin of the inventions on which his reputation is based. No easel paintings seem to survive from his early years, and nothing he made during his first days in Lombardy really prepares us for the invention of his composite heads in any case. Arcimboldo's early activities might consequently appear to give some license for calling him a competent journeyman. Like many other Italian artists of his time, he at first carried out multiple tasks in a variety of places in order to earn his bread. He designed stained-glass windows, tapestries, and frescoes in Milan, Monza, and Como.

Things changed, however, when Arcimboldo went to the Habsburg court in central Europe in 1562. For more than a quarter century Arcimboldo served the Habsburgs as imperial painter, during the reigns of Ferdinand I (ruled as emperor 1558–64), Maximilian II (ruled 1564–76), and finally Rudolf II (ruled 1576–1612). At the imperial court he was renowned for much more than his composite heads; he painted and drew portraits, designed festivals, helped make acquisitions for the imperial collections, and also did drawings for silk manufacture. Nevertheless, many of his activities for the court may still be related to his striking inventions of composites.

Despite some scholarly disagreement, it can also now definitely be determined that Arcimboldo painted his first composite heads at the imperial court, not in Italy. This determination contradicts some recent attempts to situate the original execution of these intriguing pictures in Italy and to connect them with popular culture there. Arcimboldo painted his first composite heads while in the service of Maximilian II—indeed, even before Maximilian was raised to the imperial throne, although he gave the heads to Maximilian along with a second set of related paintings a few years after he had completed both sets. Arcimboldo also made other pictures of this type for this emperor, and then later for his successors and for other princes. He was ennobled by Emperor Rudolf II for his many services and accomplishments, and also received the exceedingly rare honor of being raised to the status of count palatine. These honors hardly mark him as someone who was appreciated merely as a competent journeyman.

Arcimboldo then returned home to Milan, probably during the year 1587. From there he continued to work for Rudolf II, sending his pictures Vertumnus and Flora, among other objects, back to Prague where the imperial residence had been established. His Lombard contemporaries lionized him in poems, biographies, and artistic treatises. Renowned at the end of his life in his city of birth, he died in Milan in 1593.

Early signs exist for the reception of Arcimboldo's inventions: other artists began imitating his pictures during his lifetime. In 1592 Paolo Morigia (Morigi), a contemporary biographer, attributes the invention of composite images to Arcimboldo and also says they are found in many prints of the time. G.P. Comanini, another important contemporary commentator and associate, says that Arcimboldo's painted inventions were being stolen (semplici ruberie di sue cose, in Comanini's words) by many workshops. In fact Arcimboldo's paintings have often been crudely replicated; Comanini speaks of contemporaneous examples as assai rudamente composte. They may have inspired other contemporaneous artists to make similar works—if indeed pictures that seem similar to his were not, as has been said, simply thefts of his ideas. For example, the painter and writer Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, another Milanese contemporary of Arcimboldo, mentions in his Trattato of 1584 that Carlo Urbino da Crema had painted a picture of cookery (cucina) made out of kitchen utensils, which must have resembled Arcimboldo's compositions.

Composite heads resembling Arcimboldo's were also made soon after his death by other accomplished artists. Some such works have been attributed to his near contemporary Francesco Zucchi, brother of the better known Florentine painter Jacopo Zucchi. Anthropomorphic landscapes, composite heads, and various sorts of creatures also appear in paintings, prints, and drawings from the seventeenth century, in works attributed to Joost de Momper and to other artists. Later copies and imitations are known to have been made in paint and ink down through the nineteenth century.

The proliferation of Arcimboldesque images, as distinct from Arcimboldo's own work, may have been one of the factors contributing to the historical eclipse of the artist himself. At any rate, it remained until the mid-twentieth century for art historians to notice him favorably. But the recovery of Arcimboldo also picked up many of the themes found in earlier literature on the artist, which have consequently continued to color much writing on him.

Arcimboldo's composite paintings have most often been regarded as humorous or playful jokes. Even some of his contemporaries called his heads "ridiculous." Comanini called one of them a joke. In the eighteenth century Luigi Lanzi, historian of Italian painting, said Arcimboldo made jokes with his brush. And with the revival of interest in Arcimboldo in the twentieth century, this view returned. Some of the first art-historical studies of the 1950s also called his pictures jokes; and one of them found his work "parodistic." It was thus under the banner of visual jokester that Arcimboldo entered the mainstream of renaissance art history: in the 1970s the authoritative Pelican History of Art series called his pictures scherzi—jokes.

An emphasis on the fantastic, capricious, whimsical, and bizarre in Arcimboldo has long accompanied the view that his pictures are simply jokes. This view also goes back to Arcimboldo's own time, when several writers who knew his work well—including Lomazzo, Comanini, and Morigia—called his creations capricci and bizzarrie. Comanini specifically described Arcimboldo as a "most ingenious fantastic painter," invoking him in his discussion of fantastic imitation. Eighteenth-century critics like Lanzi and P.A. Orlandi also called Arcimboldo's paintings bizzarrie. In a similar spirit, one of the first monographs to be published on the artist called his works capricious, whimsical paintings (dipinti ghiribizzosi).

Twenty-first-century viewers may still find Arcimboldo's pictures amusing and fantastic in ways similar to those expressed in the past. For example, one review of the recent exhibition devoted to the artist ends on the note that his painting Vertumnus contains a hint of mockery (it is a portrait of Rudolf II in the guise of that ancient god of the seasons). However, the meaning of humor, jokes, and various definitions of the fantastic or capricious may also now be understood differently, as well as more historically, than they often have been in the past.

To begin with, the presence of the playful, the capricious, or the humorous does not exclude the possibility that there may be more to Arcimboldo's composite paintings. Their very method of composition makes this clear. The separate objects in the paintings are rendered in careful detail so that they may be recognized individually. But it is impossible to focus on the separate parts and on the whole at the same time, because concentration on the individual components impedes recognition of the head and torso as a whole. The two impressions cannot be grasped simultaneously. One either pays attention to the individual fruits and vegetables or notices that they compose a head; the viewer shifts from one impression to the other. Resolution of the impressions is uncertain; oscillation between two perspectives results. Arcimboldo's composites thus present a visual paradox similar to the rabbit/duck image discussed in the literature of psychology and by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: the rabbit/duck, while not closely resembling either creature itself, can be read either as a rabbit or as a duck but not as both simultaneously.


Excerpted from ARCIMBOLDO by THOMAS DACOSTA KAUFMANN Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Table of Illustrations

Preface and Acknowledgments


1 Arcimboldo’s Lombard Origins

2 Arcimboldo from 1562: The Creation of Composite Heads

3 Learning, Poetry, and Art

4 Serious Jokes

5 Natural Philosophy, Natural History, and Nature Painting

6 Nature Studies

7 Arcimboldo and the Origins of Still Life

8 Arcimboldo’s Paradoxical Paintings and the Origins of Still Life

Conclusion: Arcimboldo in the History of Art

Appendix 1. Arcimboldo, the Facchini, and Popular Culture

Appendix 2. Arcimboldo and Meda at Monza

Appendix 3. Concordance of Arcimboldo Images from the Aldrovandi Letter, Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, Dresden Kupferstich-Kabinett CA 213, Vienna (cod. min. 42) and the “Museum” of Rudolf II (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. min. 129 and 130)




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