ARCIMBOLDO, Giuseppe

(c. 1527-1593)
Popular among his contemporaries for curious, if not bizarre, allegorical por­traits depicting humans as compositions of everyday objects, Giuseppe Arcim-boldo built his reputation while he was the favored painter at the imperial Habsburg court in Prague. Born in Milan to a distinguished family, Arcimboldo completed early works there of an ordinary sort, designing stained glass and executing paintings for the cathedral while he was apprenticed to his father, Biagio. By 1562 the artist was in the Habsburg lands of Austria and Bohemia, where his art began to reflect his own distinctive style, and where he completed his most famous works. He was celebrated as a designer of state ceremonies, festivals, and balls during the reigns of Emperors Maximilian II and Rudolf II.* He also earned attention as a designer of architectural and theatrical decoration, a creator of magnificent waterworks and fountains, and an advisor in such mat­ters as silk manufacture and museum collections. In 1587 he returned to his home city, where he remained active in Rudolf's employ. He was made count palatine in 1592 and died in Milan the following year.
Art historians have termed his allegorical paintings "composite heads" be­cause of his depictions of books, weapons, implements of various kinds, and (most famously) plant and animal products in his portraits of human subjects. Two series of four portraits each stand out as his masterworks: Seasons of 1563 (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter) and Elements of 1566 (Water, Fire, Earth, Air). Seasons makes use of spring flowers, ripening grains, autumnal fruit, and empty branches and fallen leaves, while Elements makes similar use of related images.
Arcimboldo's reputation declined soon after his death, his works becoming objects of ridicule or indifference until his "rediscovery" by the surrealists in the twentieth century. More recently, his works have been interpreted as "serious jokes," reflecting the Renaissance fascination with artifice, paradox, and humor to render harmonious apparently disharmonious elements. Such themes were particularly welcome in the Habsburg court, where, as the accompanying poems of Giovanni Battista Fontana make clear, Arcimboldo's "composite heads" were understood as imperial allegories for the harmonious rule of a far-flung and diverse empire.
Bibliography
D. Craig, The Life and Works ofArcimboldo, 1966.
T. D. Kaufmann, The School of Prague, 1988.
Edmund M. Kern

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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