The Renaissance Artist Whose Fruit-Faced Portraits Inspired the Surrealists
Nearly half a millennium after their creation, artist
Together, these are but a few modern inheritances of Arcimboldo, a 16th-century Italian artist famous for his kaleidoscopic “composite heads.” For scholars of his oeuvre, the most protracted and contentious debates in the field revolve overwhelmingly around a single, seemingly simple question: Just how seriously should we regard a man whose most enduring legacy is—in the words of one author—“fruit faces”?
Born to the lesser-known Italian painter Biagio Arcimboldo in 1526, the younger Arcimboldo first supported himself in the staid tradition of his Renaissance contemporaries. Although he possessed the technical repertoire of a master, his early works—designs for tapestries, frescoes, and stained-glass windows for churches in his native Milan—are today considered largely unremarkable. “If, like Mozart, Giuseppe Arcimboldo had died at the age of thirty-five, he would have little interest for us today,” noted one biographer.
It wasn’t until 1562, when Arcimboldo was 36 years old, that the artist received a life-changing offer: the position of court portraitist at Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II’s Imperial Court at Vienna. It could not have come at a better time. Back in Milan, a new archbishop had begun to enforce a stricter, more traditional visual orthodoxy among the city’s religious artists. Facing diminished employment and stymied creativity, Arcimboldo departed for Vienna.
There, he was thrust into a hotbed of Renaissance research and experimentation that would profoundly influence his work. His newfound community was populated by leading astronomers, botanists, and physicians, as well as alchemists and other practitioners of what was then called “elite magic.” This volatile environment would prove a fertile breeding ground for Arcimboldo’s creative pursuits. Alongside his duties as portraitist, the artist served as “imperial pageant master” and presided over the design of numerous celebrations and parade garments (including, in at least one instance, a three-headed dragon costume to be worn by a horse).
By the time Maximilian II’s successor moved the Imperial Court to Prague in 1583—where Arcimboldo would continue to churn out fantastical likenesses of his patrons and peers into his mid-sixties—the artist had devised and presented what would become his two most celebrated sets of composite heads: the “Four Seasons” and “Four Elements.” Though experts point to a number of possible antecedents to these works (such as this 16th-century dish by Francesco Urbini featuring what scholars have politely deemed a “composite head of penises”) speculation abounds as to the precise inspiration for Arcimboldo’s distinctive cornucopias.
In Prague, he began to introduce an additional degree of complexity in the design of his composite heads. His invertible still lifes—The Vegetable Gardener and Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit (both c. 1590)—resemble either a face or an innocuous bowl of produce, depending on which way the canvas was turned.
Taken together, this modest body of work comprises the bulk of Arcimboldo’s legacy. “The reputation of the Milanese painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo is based entirely on a dozen or so bizarre pictures showing portrait-like heads made up of animals, plants, or inanimate objects,” a former director of the Warburg Institute once scoffed. “In an age of great painters he was hardly more than a competent journeyman. His drawings are dull, his inventions for tournaments and pageants not very different from those of other impresarios of court festivals throughout Europe.”
Nonetheless, Arcimboldo is not without his defenders. Where some see cheap stunts, Princeton University professor Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann sees sardonic wit. “The composite heads are no doubt whimsical jokes and sight gags,” Kaufmann, author of Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting, told Artsy. “But they are more than that. By regarding the works as primarily whimsical, we miss the paradox that they can be something more, and bear some kind of meaning or allusion as well as being funny.”
For Kaufmann, this includes Arcimboldo’s unsung capacities as a naturalist. Far from a hodgepodge of fantastic creatures, each composite head teems with the vast multitudes of life known to his contemporaries. Water (1566)—from the “Four Elements” set—is made up of 62 separate aquatic species. Spring (1573) features 80 identifiable flora. There is also ample evidence that the artist corresponded regularly with the leading naturalists of his day to help produce a number of animal, flower, and plant studies. Kaufmann notes that Arcimboldo was particularly well-regarded among his contemporaries for his ability to accurately render animal and plant species, immortalizing them for outside study.
And naturalists weren’t the only ones impressed by the idiosyncratic portraitist. Emulated by the likes of
“From one point of view,” Kaufmann said, “it shows that however interesting Surrealism is, it is impoverished in comparison with Arcimboldo.”