The Four Seasons pictured as faces built of fruits and vegetables, mushrooms, flowers and trees. The embodiment of the Earth, composed of animals, mixed together and existing in parallel herbivores and carnivores. The portrait of Water made of sea creatures, plants and shells, decorated with a pearl necklace. Those are barely few of many quirky compositions of the great artist of 16th century, Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
Have you ever heard about this weird yet genius Italian painter? He was born and he died in Milano. In the times of his active creation he was considered as an eccentric. Yet he was favourite of the Habsburg family and he served as the court painter, first in Vienna and later in Prague. He painted portraits of Ferdinand I and Maximilian II and his son Rudolph II. Especially the portrait of the last mentioned is widely known. Arcimboldo depicted Rudolph as Vertumnus, the God of Four Seasons.
What was so special in Arcimboldo’s style? He was a mannerist painter, known for his extraordinary portraits of people. When I first saw his paintings, years ago at the museum in Vienna, from the first look I saw just a bunch of fruits and vegetables put randomly. But when you start to study Arcimboldo’s paintings carefully, you suddenly understand that the composition of the fruits or vegetables is not random and you discover a face created of all the elements. You see a pear as a nose and beans as the eyes. Some of the people have hair made of fire or blossoming with all the flowers you can imagine. His portraits were a riddle to be solved, playing with the imagination of the person watching it. Using inanimate objects to compose faces from them was his own unique style.
Arcimboldo tended to paint his works in cycles. I already mentioned about the Four Seasons – every season has its separate portrait. He created the Four Elements such as Earth, Air, Fire and Water. He also focused on picturing people, composing the portraits from the objects connected with the specific profession. So now we can admire The Librarian composed of books, The Waiter built of barrels, bottles and plates or The Gardener, which is a bowl of plants and vegetables, but put upside down the gardener’s face emerges and the bowl turns into a hat.
Upside down. This is the key to read some of the Arcimboldo’s creations. He was playing with „reversibles”. You can see an ordinary still life painting, but when you flip it, still life comes alive, shaping into a face.
It was almost five centuries ago when Arcimboldo was playing with his first audience and charming the viewers. From the most adored by the Habsburgs, for whom he worked over 25 years, he became long-time forgotten after his death. Centuries after, he was re-discovered by future surrealists. In the 20th century he became an inspiration for the artists creating in this trend, especially admired by Salvador Dali. Arcimboldo has even been called the Godfather of Surrealism.