Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo

A highly distinctive painter known for his bizarre and non-conventional paintings was Giuseppe Arcimboldo. He was an identified Italian Mannerist born during the 16th century in Milan. He was also a portraitist more than a landscape painter and his bold creations can easily be recognized as surreal as he used inanimate objects both natural and man-made to form figures.

Arcimboldo’s works are far more different than his contemporaries that he was even thought to be 400 years ahead of his generation. His works were modern as they appear to be manipulated by some computer graphics technology. Some of his most famous works are The Jurist (1566), The Librarian (1566), the Four Seasons series (1572-73) and the Four Elements (1566).

Early Life and Training

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was born around 1526 in Milan, Italy to a family of painters and noblemen. His father was an artist specializing in stained glass and frescoes for cathedrals. His grandfather was an archbishop while his relatives were either jurists or artists. However, not much could be known from Guiseppe’s early life but art historians believe that his earliest trainings were conducted by his father.

At the age of 21, he was serving as an assistant to his father as a cathedral decorator. And the fact that he grew up with a noble family served him well in getting acquainted to potential art patrons. In 1562, he was a journeyman traveling across the Alps mountain to get to Vienna and began working there as a portraitist.

While in Vienna, Giuseppe was employed by the Hapsburg to be its court artist via the patronage of Emperor Maximilian II. He got to Vienna through the recommendation of his earlier patron, Ferdinand I, the father of the said Emperor and for whom he worked as a court artist, too.

Maximilian II as G. Arcimboldo’s Art Patron

Several of Giuseppe’s mature works were under the patronage of Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II in Prague. He produced a series of portraits for the Emperor, including the most famous Vertumnus (1590) a portrait of Rudolf II. This portrait was made up of fruits, roots, vegetables, flora and plants which was well-received by his patrons and contemporaries. It was a groundbreaking work that deserved nothing but applause and praises.

Giuseppe’s unconventional portraits were a source of amazement but it cannot be denied that it was a great display of his genius. Although the portraits were made of inanimate objects it still exhibited accurate anatomical human shapes and figures. He obviously dedicated a great amount of attention that enabled him to construct such masterpieces differently.

However, it is also worth mentioning that Giuseppe had some allegorical humor in him as each inanimate object served a particular purpose, depending on the characteristics of his model. For example, in the Librarian portrait, he used books and paper as the primary objects to construct the figure of a librarian in 1566.

In 1570, Giuseppe moved to Prague to decorate an extravagant pageantry for the Emperor. The theme was a combination of the classics and Czech mythology. Even after Maximilian passed the crown onto his son Rudolf II, Giuseppe remained to be the court’s artist, where he was mainly responsible for planning and decorating the monarch’s festivities. During his leisure time though, he would design hydraulic equipment and musical notes, giving more interesting dimension to his artistic side and talent.


In 1566, Giuseppe was involved in a controversy with some scholars because of his portrait The Librarian. This portrait shows a person drawn out of books; however, the scholars of his time believed that it was his form of ridicule on them but it wasn’t really the case.

During the 16th century, only the wealthy individuals could afford books so the premise of the portrait could be that people had more material possessions than brains. Books served as a social status that even though those elitists could not understand that the book they were reading it gave them some sense of superiority for they can buy and collect such items.

Arcimboldo’s Mannerism Style

Growing up surrounded by the influences of High Renaissance art, Giuseppe developed his own mannerism style but this movement was popular in the country already. It is through which artists were allowed to paint secular and non-secular subjects according to their own style and techniques.

In stating precisely, 16th century artists were fascinated by something bizarre and enigmatic. This was one of the reasons why Giuseppe painted such bizarre portraits plus the theory that he could be mentally deranged. He may either be a genius or an insane man but it is also worth noting that he was just responding to the demands and trends of his time, particularly to the quirks of his patrons.

Later Years

Giuseppe Arcimboldo had a successful career in Vienna but after his commission by the monarchs in Prague, he returned to Milan. In July 11, 1593, he died shortly after he finished the portrait of Rudolf II, including the Four Seasons series. He died as a celebrated painter by the other artists through manuscripts and poems that they had written for him.

Lost Works

In 1648, peace and safety of Prague was in peril due to the Swedish occupation that ignited the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. This conflict had also resulted to several of Giuseppe’s works to be retrieved by the Swedish army as they were stored in Rudolf’s collection.

Today, Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s works can be found in different museums such as at Louvre in Paris, Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Innsbruck, among other art museums in the US. His portraits and paintings remained as a source of fascination by modern day artists.

In fact, Miguel Berrocal paid homage to Arcimboldo by creating a bronze sculpture of him which he entitled Opus 144 Arcimboldo BIG in 1976. The Italian painter also was a source of inspiration for Surrealist artists like Salvador Dali when he produced “The Arcimboldo Effect…” exhibition in 1987 at Palazzo Grassi, Venice.