Giuseppe Arcimboldo

My favorite Renaissance artist — Giuseppe Archimboldo (pronounced Gew-seppy Arc-em-boldo) was a court painter, artist, and imperial party-planner to several sixteenth-century Italian emperors; Ferdinand I, Maximilian II, and Rudolf II.

Giuseppe was born in 1527 and grew up during the height of the Renaissance. An artistic talent landed him a place among the students of Leonardo Da Vinci. After his training Giuseppe immediately landed a job as a Royal painter in the imperial court. A job he would faithfully execute for the next 25 years.

Part of Archimbolo's duties included planning parties for the imperial families. These were gala affairs with gilded carriages, fountains, powered wigs, parades, flocks of birds, music and pageantry. Giiuseppe invented many special effects for these parties. For one affaire he invented a gigantic, elaborate hydro-mechanical music instrument which acted like a modern color organ. Arcimboldo called it the "harpsichord of color."

Archimboldo's job included the task of endlessly copying portraits for the imperial family, and other heads of state. Since there were no Xerox machines in the sixteenth century every painting had to be copied by hand. Just as they had to copy every book by hand because they had no printing presses. It was during the endless hours spent in his studio that Giuseppe came up with the style of painting that would forever separate him from the other painters of his day.

The Composite Head.

Giuseppe began to paint portraits of people not as we see them, but with rendered clumps of mammals, fish, vegetables and other natural objects. Instead of a nose you might see an elephant, instead of an ear, you might see a pelican or alligator. To this new style Arcimboldo applied his great talent and genius. Here are a few of our favorite composite heads.


This first example is called Earth and is part of a series of paintings devoted to the elements of nature. Here you see a head made of a variety of animals cunningly rendered to achieve amazingly realistic facial features. How many different animals can you name?


Here is another painting from Giuseppe's elemental series of portraits. This one is called Water. Here the portrait is made up of sea-creatures of all types. Notice that the mouth is made from a Shark and a Manta Ray forms the cheek. How many other aquatic animals can you name?


Here is a delightful painting, one of four in a series based on the four seasons. This one is called Summer. In this portrait the gentleman's nose appears to be made out of a ripe cucumber. Look closely at the man's coat. Can you see the name of the artist woven into the collar of his jacket, and the date 1573 embroidered on the shoulder?

Man in the Vegetables

Man in the Vegetables

Arcimboldo also created a few paintings of what we call "topsy-turvy" or inverted illusions. This painting is called the Man in the Vegetables. Right-side up, the painting looks like a bowl of fresh produce. But when inverted, it looks like a man's face with mushrooms for lips. Pass your mouse over the image to invert the painting.

To see more exhibits like this one Click here.

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