Giuseppe Arcimboldo

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Giuseppe Arcimboldo, self-portrait, 1570

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (* around 1526 in Milan ; † July 11, 1593 ibid) was an Italian painter of the late Renaissance , especially Mannerism . His panel paintings are famous, on which he depicted flowers , fruits or vegetables, but also inorganic objects such as books and composed surprising portraits or still lifes from them . In addition to his work as a painter, he also worked at the Prague court as an engineer , costume designer and musician. Only a part of his work has survived. Less commonly used forms of his family name are Archimboldi and Arcimbaldo .


Almost nothing is known from Arcimboldo's early years. The earlier assumption that he was born in 1527 results from an entry in the Milanese death registers, which recorded that he died at the age of 66. Due to a self-portrait that was unknown for a long time and contains the year 1587 and the age 61, 1526 is now the most likely year of birth. His family had produced high clergy and lawyers, but also artists like his father Biagio. The earliest mention of his person comes from the year 1549, when he worked with his father on the design of the Milan Cathedral . From the files of the Milan Cathedral we know that this work lasted until 1559.

The city of Milan, like all of northern Italy, had been under the rule of the Habsburgs since 1525 . In 1562 Arcimboldo came to the court of Emperor Ferdinand I in Vienna as a talented painter of conventional portraits and a copyist . He stayed there as a so-called “house counterfetter” among the successors of Ferdinand I: Maximilian II and Rudolf II.

Ferdinand I son, Emperor Maximilian II appointed him court painter in 1564 . Soon afterwards he created the first series of images of the "Four Seasons" and the "Four Elements" in the manner that became typical for him. They were presented to the emperor on New Year's Day 1569.

In 1570 Arcimboldo was sent to Prague to organize a large parade with mythological themes for Maximilian . His ingenuity as a painter, but also in organizing processions, coronation ceremonies, splendid weddings and the like, was widely admired. As a painter, set designer, architect, engineer and organizer in one person, he staged brilliant, costly celebrations that were suitable to demonstrate the power of the emperor, to increase his fame and to distract the people, at least for a short time, from their everyday misery. From 1575 he was court painter to Emperor Rudolf II, Maximilian's son and successor. Rudolf II was a politically insignificant emperor, but a very good friend of the arts and science and kept a colorful court of artists, astronomers , astrologers and alchemists . Arcimboldo had similar tasks to fulfill for him as before for Maximilian.

In addition, he invented hydraulic machines, worked on a museum project and pursued his plan to translate music into color values. He was convinced that painting and music obey the same laws and therefore tried to develop a scientific theory according to which there was a fixed relationship between harmonious proportions of tones and semitones on the one hand and color nuances on the other.

It was not until 1587 that Rudolf II allowed him to return to his hometown of Milan, and so Arcimboldo left the Prague court. Rudolf II had previously confirmed his hereditary nobility and honored him with a coat of arms , in 1592 he was awarded the non-hereditary title of Count Palatinate .

The asteroid (6556) Arcimboldo was named after him.

The work

Vertumnus of Arcimboldo. Portrait of Emperor Rudolf II

Arcimboldo owes his fame to the amazing portraits of flowers, fruits, animals, but also inorganic objects, which he arranged so artfully that, with the help of the viewer's imagination, they combine to form the appearance of a human head. Contemporaries often attested that these associative images were very similar to the people portrayed. With this concept, Arcimboldo proves to be a striking representative of Mannerism , a style of the late Renaissance. The artists of the Renaissance had achieved a high degree of perfection and harmony in recreating nature. Mannerism provided an alternative or a modern extension of possibilities at the time. Now individual artists such as Arcimboldo based their work on subjective ideas or fantastic ideas that definitely went beyond the classical harmonic representation. The allegorical or enigmatic (enigmatic, enigmatic) illustration became an essential stylistic element of Mannerism.

Arcimboldo created numerous pictures of this kind, including a portrait of Emperor Maximilian II, on which his head is depicted as a composition of fish and seafood. His reversal pictures are also known , in which still lifes made of vegetables or flowers can be seen; if they are turned upside down, they turn into portraits.

Sample picture Spring . This is an image from the Four Seasons series , a theme that Arcimboldo has taken up repeatedly. The face of the person depicted is made up of rose buds and individual, unidentifiable flowers. The ear is formed from the flower of a peony , a columbine forms the earring, while lilies of the valley represent the teeth. A wide variety of flowers form the hair, to which a Madonna lily is attached as an ornament. The robe is composed of green foliage; the leaves of cabbage, dandelions and wild strawberries are recognizable . The collar consists of white flowers, including daisies .

Picture example Vertumnus . His painting Vertumnus from 1591 is a striking example of the multi-layered art of Arcimboldo, which is not always transparent at first glance . First we see a collection of precisely and delicately painted flowers as well as field and garden fruits from all seasons. These combine to form a portrait with the facial features of Rudolf II . Furthermore, the emperor appears with a crowned forehead as Vertumnus, the Etruscan- Roman god of change or transformation - allegorically indicated by the changes in the vegetation over the course of a year. On a fourth level, the successful combination of the most diverse parts can be understood as a symbol (actually: ideal) for the harmonious diversity of the imperial empire.

These and similar picture inventions by Arcimboldo gave the surrealists of the 20th century inspiration, which can be found in various works, for example in Salvador Dalí's face of Mae West as an apartment (gouache, Chicago) and Spain (oil, Rotterdam).

Selection of works

Archduchess portraits

As court painter in Vienna, Arcimboldo was possibly the painter of the portraits of the archduchesses , four portraits of women of female members of the Habsburg imperial family.


  • Kindler's Painting Lexicon. (Zurich 1964). Volume 1, DTV Verlag Munich 1976, ISBN 3-423-05956-7
  • Andreas Beyer (Ed.): Arcimboldo Figurines. Costumes and designs for court parties. Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1983, ISBN 3-458-32380-5 .
  • Sylvia Ferino-Pagden (ed.): Arcimboldo (1526–1593). Exhibition catalog of the Kunsthistorisches Museum . Vienna 2008, ISBN 978-3-85497-118-4 .
  • Benno Geiger: The bizarre paintings by Giuseppe Arcimboldi . Wiesbaden. Limes 1960.
  • War escort, Werner: Arcimboldo: 1527–1593; a mannerist magician , Taschen, Cologne 2003, ISBN 3-8228-0840-7

Web links

Commons : Giuseppe Arcimboldo  - album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Piero Brocardo: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, self-portrait . In: Sylvia Ferino-Pagden (ed.): Arcimboldo (1526-1593). Exhibition catalog of the Kunsthistorisches Museum . Vienna 2008, ISBN 978-3-85497-118-4 , pp. 32 .
  2. khm - Kunsthistorisches Museum (ed.): Arcimboldo - An exhibition of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the sVo-Musée du Luxembourg, Paris. February 12 to June 1, 2008 Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie. (Vienna 2008, brief description of the exhibition)