Being Fruitful or Vegging Out? The Bizarre Portraits of Guiseppe Arcimboldo

Rudolf II Painted as Verumnus, Roman God of the Seasons

Art critics have long debated whether the imaginative portrait heads of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (also spelled Arcimboldi), created entirely of representations of objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, sea creatures and tree roots, are merely whimsical or the products of an unbalanced mind. The artist arranged these objects on the canvas so they formed a recognizable likeness of the subject of the portrait.

Born in Milan, Italy in 1527, Giuseppe Arcimboldo eventually became the court portraitist to Ferdinand I at the Habsburg court in Vienna, and later, to Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II at the court in Prague. He also served as the court decorator and costume designer. When King Augustus of Saxony visited Vienna in 1570 and 1573, he saw Arcimboldo’s work and commissioned a copy of “The Four Seasons” that incorporated his own monarchic symbols.

The Four Seasons













After leaving royal service in Prague, Arcimboldo retired to Milan, where he died in 1593. In his final years, he produced the composite portrait of Rudolf II (the image featured at the top of the post).

Although there are those who maintain the artist was nuts (pun intended!), the majority of scholars believe that, given the period in which he worked, and the Renaissance fascination with riddles, puzzles, and the unusual (the grotesque heads of Leonardo da Vinci, for example), Arcimboldo was simply catering to the tastes of his times.

While Arcimboldo’s more conventional work, on traditional religious subjects, has been largely forgotten, his unique fruit and vegetable portraits were rediscovered in the early 20th century by Surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí. These fascinating portraits were greatly admired by his contemporaries and remain popular today.

So, who knows? Maybe old Arcimboldo was full of beans, but it was going a little bananas that guaranteed his legacy. It’s food for thought, anyway…

All images are in public domain (based on life of the author plus 100 years)

You might also enjoy the children’s book, Hello Fruit Face, which features Arcimboldo’s work:

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