Arcimboldo's works

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The air" and "The spring" Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The air" and "The spring"

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The air" and "The spring"

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The summer " and "The fire " Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The summer " and "The fire "

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The summer " and "The fire "

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The earth " and "The autumn " Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The earth " and "The autumn "

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The earth " and "The autumn "

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The winter " and "The earth " Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The winter " and "The earth "

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The winter " and "The earth "

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The librarian"

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The librarian"

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "Vertumno"

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "Vertumno"

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The roast" Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The roast"

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: "The roast"


"Old master" means "boring"? For many contemporary art lovers, the answer is "yes". But it is quite possible that they have never faced the astonishing pictorial oeuvre of the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Milano, 1527 - 1593)

by G. Fernández -
With the possible exception of Hyeronimus Bosch, Arcimboldo is the most original of all Renaissance painters, a genius who -with his astonishing portraits formed by elements such as fruits, animals or objects- seems to anticipate several 20th century avant-gardes such as the surrealism. In this brief and subjective article we are going to discover the best of his oeuvre.


Arcimboldo painted numerous series about "The four seasons" (one in a private collection in Bergamo, painted around 1572; another one, painted in 1573, in the Louvre Museum) being each of them a copy without many variations of the previous one, reflecting the success of the series. The painter represented the hypothetical faces of every season with the most typical element of any of them. Thus the face of the spring is made of flowers, the summer has a face of fruits and a body of wheat, while the autumn is a curious summary of fallen leaves, fruits and mushrooms. The series ends with the winter, arguably the most complex portrait of the entire series, in which we can find elements as "cold" and "dry" as the bark that forms the face, and others so "live" and "warm" as the leaves of the hair and the two fruits hanging on the neck. Perhaps the optimistic Arcimboldo was unable to depict the winter as a "cold" season, so he added these "kind" elements to the typical cold elements of the winter.


As he did in "The four seasons", in the series of "The four elements" Arcimboldo assigned to any element a face formed by the most characteristic of any of them. Nevertheless, the series possesses some elements that make it quite different, and even more interesting, than the previous one.

First, and contrary to the previous series, every face is formed by only one kind of element. The face of "The Earth" is formed exclusively by land animals, "The Air" is made of birds, and "The Water" by fish and marine animals. A special case is "The Fire" (Historical Museum, Vienna) represented by several blazing elements, from the embers that form the hair to the two cannons in his chest. Nevertheless, and despite this limitation, the paintings are more visually rich than the works from the previous series.

In addition, we must point that this series has an evident connection with "The four seasons". In fact, both series are organised by a hypothetical "axis of symmetry", confronting the air with the spring, the summer with the fire, the autumn with the earth, and the winter with the water (see illustrations at the left).


In addition to these series of canvases (elements, seasons...), Arcimboldo also painted some individual portraits -many of them for the Emperor Rudolph II- in his original and unmistakable maniera.

Although the title of "most original work by Arcimboldo" can be much challenged, the most serious contender is arguably the spectacular "The Librarian" (c.1566, Skoklosters Slott , Sweden), a fabulous and imaginative work that, with his geometric forms and boundless fantasy, seems to anticipate many surrealist works created almost 400 years later.

The grotesque portrait of "The Jurist" (two versions, one dated 1566 and exhibited in the Statens Konstsamlingar in Stockholm, Sweden, and a later version in a private collection in Milano, Italy) is one of the most mysterious works by Arcimboldo. First, who is the grotesque man in the picture? While many critics maintain that the man is a jurist called J. U. Zasius, others affirm that the portrayed figure is no other than John Calvin. Anyway, the man's face, sharing his left eye with the horrible plucked chick, is one of the most disturbing images from the Renaissance.

The portrait/still life of "Vertumno" (c.1590, Skoklosters Slott, Sweden) is perhaps the most ambitious work by Arcimboldo, an exuberant portrait of Rudolph II depicted as the god Vertumno, a work that the poet Gregorio Comanini described with this words:

Look at the apple, look at the peach

how they are offered in both cheeks

rounded and full of life

Look at my eyes

Cherry-coloured one

blackberry-coloured the other

Don't fool yourself, it's my face

"Flora" (c.1591, private collection, Milano) is a mature work, painted for Rudolph II, arguably less imaginative and interesting than the previous ones, but which possesses an absolute technical perfection: in fact, it is really admirable to achieve such a detailed representation of every flower while the whole portrait keeps a coherent unity.


Perhaps the best example of Arcimboldo's originality is the so-called "inverted portraits", apparent still lifes that, once turned 180º, are transformed into strange, disturbing portraits. "The roast" or "The cook" (Private collection, Stockholm) and "The market gardener" (c.1590, Civic Museum , Cremona) are the best and more famous examples.

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