From the “Bohemian Parnassus” and the Rudolfine Wunderkammer – the Phantastic Compositions of Giuseppe Arcimboldo

11 July 1593, the Italian painter and Renaissance virtuoso Giuseppe Arcimboldo, best known for his panel paintings of fruit, vegetable, fish and books composed into allegoric portraits or still lifes, died at the age of 67 in his native Milan. 

“The Father of Surrealism” (Salvador Dalí)

Detail of Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus, the Roman God of the seasons (around 1590)

By and large, Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor of House Habsburg, was a walking disaster whose complete political ineptitude, combined with a highly neurotic personality, paved the way for the catastrophe of the Thirty Years’ War. But there is another side to him, the patron of the arts and sciences who drew some of greatest minds and skills of his age to his court at Prague and created an atmosphere described by his contemporaries as Northern Parnassus, a chorus that sang the Northern Renaissance’s Swan Song in Central Europe. Astronomers like Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler paved the way for modern astronomy, amply funded by the emperor, natural scientists as well as alchemists and magicians contributed to his Kunstkammer, far more than a mere cabinet of curiosities, but a neatly organised early museum and research establishment with botanical and zoological gardens in an age when magic and science were hardly distinguishable in the juvenile experimental phase of modern science. Thus, scientists usually had a background as alchemists and astronomers were at the same time astrologers and, more often than not, adepts of Hermetic magic and while the rather un-scientific approaches of charlatans like Edward Kelley intermingled with the serious intentions of John Dee and Judah Loew, Hermetic allegory and synchronicity became a leitmotif of Rudolfine Mannerism. A fundamental attitude that explains an integral part of the phantastic compositions of Rudolf’s court painter Arcimboldo beyond sheer artistic whimsicality.

Depicted below are Arcimboldo's "Four Elements" (from left to right "Air", Earth", "Water" and "Fire", all 1566)

The artist was discovered in his mid-thirties by the Habsburgs who ruled his native Milan back then, was summoned to court in 1562, first to Ferdinand I’s at Vienna and finally, in 1570, to Maximilian’s and Rudolf’s at Prague. Arcimboldo had already become something of a family heirloom of the Habsburgs and his wonderful imagination served to ornament their festivities and pageants and the artist acted as production designer, architect, engineer and set decorator, quite the Renaissance man. His highly symbolic series of “Four Elements” and “Four Seasons” even predate his relocation to Prague’s fruitful environment, but they already display the age’s love of picture puzzles, riddles, symbols and all things mythological and esoteric. And while using exotic growths like corn and eggplants as placeholder for Habsburg’s claim to power over foreign places, A.E.I.O.U.-wise, Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan, All the world is subject to Austria, most of the fruits and plants he uses have at least one hidden meaning, assembled to a bigger picture that is far greater than the sum of its parts. A charming aspect is Arcimboldo’s meticulous attention to detail in his compositions. All the beasties, grasses, weeds and vegetables are recognisable to a botanist or zoologist, nothing unheard of in Renaissance art, but rarely seen in such abundance, not even in the works of da Vinci and Dürer.

Below are Arcimboldo's "Four Seasons" (between 1563 and 1573)

The collage of highly-detailed elements with its multifold meanings and multi-branched ways of interpretation have led later beholders of Arcimboldo’s works to the assumption that he was ahead of his times, thinking of the Modernists, who, of course, loved him the instant they knew of him. In fact, Arcimboldo was quite a child of his times, a model pupil without doubt, but it was rather the rediscovery of his work in the late 19th century that put his work out of the ominousness of being the assemblage art of a madman that rightly belonged into the chamber of curiosities of a deranged ruler dabbling in the occult. Not that the 300 years of art history following his death did not love their symbols and allusions, but few artists had a mind or the social and historic background to fire their avenues of thought, perception and deeper meaning as a broadside on their audience like Arcimboldo. However, his contemporaries loved him and cherished the powerful arrangements of his works. When he returned to his native Milan from Rudolfine Prague a few years before his death, he had become a celebrity at home and painted himself, quite tongue-in-cheek, in the same manner as his former benefactor Emperor Rudolf.

And more about Arcimboldo, his life and times on:
Arcimboldo’s self-portrait “Four Seasons in one Head” (1590)