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High Italian Renaissance

Late "Gothic art" of the north


Floor 1 / Rennaisance / Mannerism / Archimbaldo


Giuseppe Arcimboldo


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Archemboldo: [pen+ink] self    Giuseppe Arcimboldo
also spelled Arcimboldi or Arcimbaldus.
He used Giuseppe, Josephus, Joseph, or Josepho as a first name.

born: Milan, Dutchy of Milan (dominated by France) [now Italy]; about 1528
died: Milan, Dutchy of Milan (dominated by the Holy Roman Empire) [now Italy]; 11 July 1593

alt spellings: archimboldo archimboldi

Arcimboldo was the painter and general factotum for the court of the Holy Roman Empire in Prague from 1562 to 1587. He worked under three Holy Roman Emperors.

The above self-portrait was created about 1575, is done with blue ink and ink wash on prepared blue paper, 23 × 16 cm; this was Arcimboldo's favorite medium for sketching. The picture is now in National Gallery in Prague.

Arcimboldo was one of the first, or maybe the first renaissance painter to be more interested in objects other than people. Of course, all his pictures of things are pictures of people.

One can view this interest in painting things as evolving, during the next 20 years—at the beginning of the Baroque era—into in what is now called the still-life picture. That is, a picture of flowers and vegetables without people. See the relatively unknown Roman artist Francesco Zucci, who brought Arcimboldo's witty style to Rome.

At about the same time Caravaggio began to paint realistic still-life pictures. This may have been prompted by seeing the Zucci pictures or maybe he knew about the Arcimboldo pictures since they were well known by 1600. But more likely Caravaggio was using fruit as an exercise trying to copy images projected by a concave mirror. Fruit don't move much during a session of painting.


A short note on pictures in this gallery.

Many pictures in this gallery are heavily restored. This is because most of Arcimboldo's pictures have not been treated well by museums. The restorations shown in this gallery try to return the pictures original colors where those colors are hidden behind layers of dirt and badly yellowed shellac.

Here are two thumbnails to give you an idea of the difference.

Example Unrestored

Existing Picture

Example Tigertail Restoration

Tigertail Restoration

Note that all the pictures throughout this museum are restored to some extent or another; that's one of the reasons it is called a virtual museum. But the changes in the images here tend to be slightly more dramatic.

In a similar way, the light blue prepared paper Arcimbolo used for his sketches is now yellow with age and his blue ink has turned black. But in this museum you will see them closer to the way he experienced them. For an example see his self-portrait above.


Let's follow Arcimboldo's career and the events in the Habsburg family which controlled the Holy Roman Empire. Interspersed are sample Arcimboldo pictures.



Born in Milan. Mother is Chiara Parisi. Father is Biagio Arcimboldo, a painter. The family traces itself back to Southern Germany. The Italian spelling of the name is: Arcimboldi, the German spelling is: Arcimboldo.

Maximilian II born in Habichtburg, Switzerland, as heir to the Holy Roman Empire.

1549 22 Arcimboldo working in Milan Cathedral as his father's assistant. With his father he designes several stained glass windows.
1551 23

Probably the date that Arcimboldo's father dies.

Many of the Milan cathedral windows are designed by Arcimboldo but it is unknown which ones are his. We do know he was paid for the designs for many.

1552 25 Rudolph II born in Vienna, son of Maximilian II.


Arcimboldo: [stained glass]  Birth of St. Catherine

Birth of St. Catherine
Design about 1551
Constructed in Cologne in 1566
tained glass window
116 × 67 cm
Milan Cathedral, pane #6
on the 14th window of the S. Apse

Arcimboldo: [stained glass] St. Catherine Talks to the Emperor

St. Catherine Talks
to the Emperor
about the True Faith
Design about 1551
Constructed in Cologne in 1566
stained glass window
116 × 67 cm
Milan Cathedral, pane #57
of the 14th window of the S. Apse


1558 31 Arcimboldo leaves Milan; he must be well known as an artist by this time because he is commissioned to design a Gobelin tapestry for the Como Cathedral. There are seven similar ones in the cathedral. All are probably designed by Arcimboldo.


Arcimboldo: [tapestry] The Passing of the Virgin

The Passing of the Virgin
mural tapestry; 423 × 470 cm
Como Cathedral
Como, Italy

Inscriptions: The Wool Weavers Guild of Como
Made in Ferrara 1562


1562 35

Moves to Vienna at the request of Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor, where he is appointed to the court as portrait artist and copyist.

Maximilian as crowned King of Bohemia. Rudolph II, his son, would be about age 10 at this point.

1563 36 Arcimboldo paints his first series of The Four Seasons.
[The location of the remaining one, Autumn, is unknown to me at least — ed.]



Arcimboldo: Winter — Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

oil on wood; 66 × 50 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Vienna, Austria

Arccimboldo: Spring — Prado

oil on wood; 84 × 57 cm
Prado, Madrid, Spain

Arcimboldo: Summer — Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

oil on wood; 84 × 57 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Vienna, Austria

Removed for Restoration


1564 37

Ferdinand I dies. Maximilian II becomes Holy Roman Emperor.

Rudolph is sent to Philip II of Spain, the grim, for education. Rudolph is a serious boy, inclined towards melancholia. His decade in Spain does nothing to improve his bouts of depression.

Arcimboldo paints many pictures in this period, but few survive.

1565 38

Arcimboldo appointed as court portrait artist.

Arcimboldo served as architect, stage designer, water engineer and art specialist.

With Arcimboldo Maximilian developed and extended his curio cabinet which became the nucleus of his son's Art and Wonder Chambers.


1566 39 Arcimboldo paints The Lawyer and begins to paint The Elements. Arcimboldo travels to Italy, paid for by 100 guilder gift given by the Emperor. This may also have associated with it a secret spying or diplomatic mission.


Arcimboldo: The Librarian

The Librarian
about 1566
oil on canvas; 97 × 71 cm
Skoklosters Slott
Bålsa, Sweden

Arcimboldo: Lawyer

The Lawyer
oil on canvas, 64 × 51 cm
Statens Konstsamlingar
Gripsholm Slott
Stockholm, Sweden


Arcimboldo: Earth

oil on wood; 70 × 49 cm
Private collection
Vienna, Austria

Arcimboldo: Water

oil on limewood; 67 × 52 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Vienna, Austria

Arcimboldo: Air

about 1555
oil on canvas; 75 × 56 cm
Private collection
Basel, Switzerland

Arcimboldo: Fire

oil on limewood; 67 × 51 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Vienna, Austria


1568 40 Giambattista Fonteo becomes Arcimboldo's assistant.
1569 41 Arcimboldo gives The Seasons and The Elements to Maximilian as a New Year's gift. Fonteo and Arcimboldo write a poem to accompany the paintings.



Archimboldo: The Cook

The Dinner
about 1570
oil on canvas, 52 × 41 cm
Private collection
Stockholm, Sweden

Click here to see The Cook


1570 41 Maximilian's daughter Elizabeth marries Charles IX of France. Grand festival put on in Prague to celebrate; it is partially organized by Arcimboldo.
1571 44 Archduke Charles of Austria marries Maria of Bavaria in Vienna. Arcimboldo, Fonteo, and Jacopo Strada organize the affair.


Arcimboldo: [sketch] Cerebus Costume

Costume for Cerberus
about 1571
blue ink on paper; 25 × 19 cm
Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Arcimboldo: [sketch] Charon Costume

Costume for Charon
about 1571
blue ink on paper; 25 × 19 cm
Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Arcimboldo: [sketch]

Costume for Geometry
for a festive procession in Vienna
about 1571
blue ink on paper; 39 × 20 cm
Ufizzi, Florence, Italy

Arcimboldo: [sketch]  Costume Musick

Costume for Musick
for a festive procession in Vienna
about 1571
blue ink on paper; 30 × 20 cm
Ufizzi, Florence, Italy


1572 45 Arcimboldo paints the second set of The Seasons.
1573 46 Arcimboldo paints the third and fourth versions of The Seasons. Maximilian sends a set of paintings to the Prince Elector of Saxony.


One of these copies of The Seasons can be found it the Louvre; some art historians believe that the flowered border around the Louvre pictures was added later by a different artist. This is the only complete set in one place.

[The last time I was in the Louvre in 2001, these pictures were very dirty, mislabeled, and almost impossible to find. They are clearly not high priority items for the Louvre curatorial staff. Given this disdain for Arcimboldo, perhaps the Louvre should sell them to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, they, no doubt, would take better care of them. I'm sure the Getty would be thrilled to buy them. —ed]


Arcimboldo: Winter — Louvre

oil on canvas; 76 × 64 cm
Louvre, Paris, France

Arcimboldo: Spring — Louvre

oil on canvas; 76 × 64 cm
Louvre, Paris, France

Arcimboldo: Summer — Louvre

oil on canvas; 76 × 64 cm
Louvre, Paris, France

Arcimboldo: Autumn — Louvre

oil on canvas; 76 × 64 cm
Louvre, Paris, France


1575 47

Rudolph II, 23, returns from Spain. Maximilian is not feeling well. He decides his son should begin to rule the empire. Rudolph II is crowned King of Bohemia, in Prague.

Arcimboldo's illegitimate son, Benedict is given official recognition by Maximilian.

1576 48 In the summer, Maximilian sets out for Regensburg with his family. On the way he becomes indisposed and rests for a month; finally in Regensburg he again falls ill. Rudolph hurries to his father's deathbed. On 12 October Maximilian dies. Two weeks later, the German Electors name Rudolph the new Emperor. He is crowned on 1 November.
1577 49

Rudolph is an intelligent and gifted man. He speaks several languages with ease, has good taste in art and is interested in mathematics and science. He becomes good friends with Arcimboldo and Fonteo.

After his return from Spain, however, Rudolph suffers from depression and after being crowned Emperor his periods of depression deepen.

Germany is divided by Protestant and Catholic factions. A large earthquake shakes Vienna and the plague comes and goes. The Turks do the same. Rudolph suffers his first emotional breakdown, becoming severely depressed and refuses to leave his appartment.


Arcimboldo: Eve

Arcimboldo: Eve's Counterpart

Eve and the Apple, with Counterpart
Private collection
Basel, Switzerland


1580 52 Rudolph II ennobles Arcimboldo.
1581 53 Rudolph becomes so depressed that he rapidly loses weight and people fear for his life.
1582 54

Rudolph II moves his residence permanently to Prague in Bohemia to escape the crowds and pressures of Vienna. He turnes to the study of astronomy and magic and starts adding to his father's collection of beautiful and curious objects.

Arcimboldo and Fonteo move to Prague with him.

1584 56

Rudolph's court was the intellectual center of Europe. He brought astronomers, authors, doctors, artists, and craftsmen to the court in Prague. In the castle gardens the Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, observes the stars and writes down his observations of planetary wanderings. When Rudolph's cousin, Archduke Ferdinand banishes Johannes Kepler, Rudolph welcomes him in Prague. Using Brahe's work, the Rudolphine Tables, Kepler validates his theory of planetary motion.

Rudolph collects paintings of, among others, Breughel and Correggio.

In this environment of intellectual excitement Arcimboldo creates a color notation for representing music; probably to show the similarly of principles underlying painting and music.

Lomazzo's commentary on Arcimboldo is the first known published criticism of Arcimboldo's peculiar art.

1585 57 Arcimboldo makes Rudolph II a present of 148 designs for costumes, headgear, and decorative ware. See the sketches above from 1571 which were a part of this bound set.


Arcimboldo: Ortolando

The Vegetable Bowl
about 1590
oil on wood; 35 × 24 cm
Museo Civico
Ala Ponzone, Cremona, Italy

Click here to see The Gardner



1587 59 Arcimboldo leaves Prague and goes to Milan to retire. He probably leaves because he is not feeling well, and because Rudolph's instablity is becoming difficult to cope with, and Arcimboldo would prefer to be elsewhere when Rudolph's personal crisis reaches its conclusion.
1589 61 Arcimboldo sends his Flora from Milan to Rudolph II in Prague.
1591 64 Picture of Rudolph II as Vertumnus sent to Prague.



Arcimboldo: Flora

about 1588
oil on wood; 73 × 56 cm
Private collection
Paris, France

Arcimboldo: Vertumnus

[Emperor Rudolph II]
about 1590-1591
oil on wood; 68 × 56 cm
Skoklosters Slott
Bålsta, Sweden



1593 66

Arcimboldo dies in Milan of urine retention caused by kidney stones. He died a painful death, but he did not die of the plague.




And What Happened to Rudolph?

Over the years, Rudolph's moods change from engagement with the problems of his day to deep melancholia, or paranoia and uncontrollable rages. During Rudolph's inability to deal with governing, Wolfgang Rumpf, his chief minister and long-time companion, gradually attains control over the administration of the Empire. By 1599, Rudolph becomes convinced that Rumpf is planning and acting aginst him. He forces Rumpf to resign, but later takes him back.

For a couple of months in 1599, Rudolph's rages subside, but in July he flees Prague in a panic after an outbreak of the plague.

For a year he lives in isolation in Pilsen. He suffers from a shortness of breath. His attacks of paranoid fears are often followed by weeks of relative calm.

In June 1600 Rudolph returns to Prague and for a while he acts normally. He hunts and attends parties. Soon, however, he starts hallucinating and claiming that he has been poisoned or bewitched. He repeatedly attempts suicide.

In September 1600 he dismisses Wolfgang von Rumpf for the last time. From then onwards Rudolph fails to summon the Privy Council or to delegate his powers to a Prime Minister. The government is paralyzed.

He takes his meals alone, every day at exactly the same time in exactly the same room. Priests or prayers of any sort annoy him, and he fears the sacraments.

In 1611 Matthias, Rudolph's brother and heir, meets with rest of the family in Vienna. Matthias is named "Head of the House of Habsburg" and they make him regent. At the head of an army Matthias marches to the gates of Prague and forces Rudolph into submission.

On 11 November, Rudolph signs a deed of abdication. He is left only with the Imperial Crown but no power. Matthias grants him a pension and the possession of Hradschin castle in Prague. For a couple of months he lives there with his exotic animals.

On 20 January 1612, Rudolph II dies. His reign is regarded as Prague's golden age.




And What Happened to Arcimboldo?

Arcimboldo was soon forgotten. His paintings became quaint curiosities.

Finally, in 1885 Dr. Carlo Casati writes a treatise Giuseppe Arcimboldi, pittore milanese in which he is characterized as a painter of portraits. A few years later the Surrealists regard him as a precursor of their own art. By 1954 Benno Geiger publishes his detailed analysis of Arcimboldo's work. Interest in Arcimboldo in the last half of the twentieth century increases dramatically.

Much effort is made to fit Arcimboldo's art into the traditional categories that have been arranged to describe the periods of Western art. None are really convincing. In time period Arcimboldo fits into late Mannerism. But stylistically he is in a place of his own.

What was Arcimboldo's motive for doing these pictures? There has been much argument about him expressing a view that humans are a part of the world, or vice versa. Or that the pictures are all symbolic codes for some message. Undoubtly there is symbolism in the choices of animals and objects that make up the face. But I think there is a simple answer. Arcimboldo and the people who supported him found the pictures witty and entertaining. They were all the rage among European monarchs. So Arcimboldo painted more of the same.

If you watch the pattern of the pictures he moved from relatively simple pictures easy to understand images to more and more complex ones, reaching a point where they became puzzle pictures. Puzzle pictures require wit on the part of the viewer to see what is represented.

And then there are the final two great pictures, Flora and Vertumnus. These are witty, but they are also romantic and caring images to honor his patron Rudolph for whom he felt great sadness and affection. One can't look at Vertumnus long without laughing; and I'm sure Arcimboldo hoped that Rudolph would laugh and feel better. And maybe it did help Rudolph hold on longer.




High Renaissance

Late "Gothic art" of the north


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