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Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Italian Painter

Giuseppe Arcimboldo Photo
Movement: Mannerism

Born: c.1527 - Milan

Died: July 11, 1593 - Milan

"Arcimboldo was recognised as an ingenious talent in his age, but he is much more famous in ours."

Art critic Jonathan Jones

Summary of Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Arcimboldo was an Italian Mannerist painter known for his extraordinary, and sometimes monstrous, human portraits. His unique collage style, which embodies a true surreal wit, is comprised of fruit and vegetables, animals, books, and other objects. Though he was viewed as an eccentric (or, at worst, insane), and though his most famous works were sometimes dismissed as little more than curiosities, Arcimboldo's paintings were in fact complex compositions, rich in both paradox and allegory. It is thought that the subtleties in his paintings might have been lost on the general public but the Habsburg emperors (for whom he worked for more than 25 years) were so pleased with Arcimboldo's work that Rudolph II made him a Count Palatine in 1592, after he had returned to Milan. His paintings have been cited as precursors to Surrealism and were highly prized by Salvador Dalí and other members of the movement.

Key Ideas

As the most radical and extravagant exponent of the Mannerist style, Arcimboldo's artwork is remarkable for the way he pushed the theme of the parallel between mankind and the natural world to new limits. His portraits, made of composite flora and/or fauna arrangements, have been at the same time likened to symbolic picture puzzles.
Arcimboldo honed his talent for playing tricks on the eye through his fantastical - such as a three-headed dragon costume to be fitted to a horse - and allegoric - drawing on such themes as "grammar," "geometry," "astrology," "music" and "rhetoric" - pageant outfit designs.
The idea of the reversible image - known subsequently as the "Arcimboldo palindrome" - saw the same image take on a different meaning once it is reversed (a regular palindrome is a word that reads the same frontally and in reverse). Seen from one angle we have a still life; when rotated 180 degrees we discover a typical Arcimboldo composite head. The fashion for picture puzzles notwithstanding, the "Arcimboldo palindrome" represented something more like a pictorial metamorphosis and can be read thus as the artistic equivalent of "elite magic" as advocated by his court colleagues, the alchemists.
Historians have speculated over possible precursors (such as the ceramicist Francesco Urbini) to Arcimboldo's unique style of so-called teste composte ("composite head") painting. What one sees so unambiguously in Arcimboldo's unique compositional cornucopias, however, is his strong leaning towards the more imaginative and fanciful elements of the Mannerist style. Though his portraits were truly idiosyncratic (and therefore not to everyone's tastes) the progressive Habsburgs delighted in inventive artistic interpretations and it was well known that the Imperial Court was welcoming of intellectuals and avant-gardists.
Though he remained true to his signature teste composte technique, portraits in his later period could be executed with the skill of a miniaturist possessed with the scientific knowledge of a botanist. His mature portraits were less indebted to collage offering more in terms of an exquisite accuracy in the merged detail of their flora.
Detail of <i>The Librarian</i> (c. 1570) by Arcimboldo

Arcimboldo’s portraits made up of fruit, vegetables and flowers are still incredibly popular many centuries after their creation. Less well-known however are his other portraits, made up of meat, fish and even inanimate objects. In his intriguing and almost Surrealist The Librarian (1566), a work cleverly made up of books, it is thought that the artist was poking fun at members of the wealthy but unintelligent elite, who would collect literature as a status symbol, but were totally unable to read their contents.

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