Arcimboldo and the Emperor's face

Arcimboldo and the Emperor's face

August 01, 2019

Arcimboldo and the Emperor's face

In the work of Arcimboldo, flowers, fruits and game become bizarre building blocks for his portraits, telling us more about the food of the 16th century.

The famous faces made up of fruits and vegetables by the Lombard painter Arcimboldo are something of a mystery in the history of art. Not much is known of Arcimboldo’s life: it is not known who he studied with and none of his early works remain. 

Like many painters of his time, especially Italians, Arcimboldo was a man of many talents, producing stained glass windows, frescoes and tapestries in Milan, Como and Monza. 

Arcimboldo’s portraits

However, in 1562, he could be found at the court of the Habsburgs, first in Vienna, then in Prague, in the service of Emperors Ferdinand I, Maximilian II and Rudolf II. And it is precisely the portrait of the latter in the guise of Vertumnus, god of the seasons, that constitutes one of Arcimboldo’s greatest masterpieces.

We don't know why the painter began to create these strange portraits made up of plants or other foods (such as game and meat). One possibility is that with this allegory of food, Arcimboldo wanted to symbolize the abundance brought by his commissioners’ good governance. Grapes, melons, peaches, cherries, wheat, flowers and other natural elements make up the god of seasons and metamorphoses, while the lush representation of fruits and flowers from different seasons and different various parts of the world celebrate the Habsburgs as a dynasty of infinite prosperity and wellbeing.


What did people eat in the 16th century?

For modern-day researchers and botanists, Arcimboldo’s portraits are a treasure trove of information about what agricultural products looked like and the most common species of the time.

Arcimboldo was definitely influenced by the naturalistic culture that was developing in Lombardy, partly due to the presence of Leonardo da Vinci. The same interest in natural history and botany could be found at the court of Vienna and Prague, coupled with a predilection for the “bizarre” and the collecting of rarities, resulting in the nascence of the first “natural history museums", the Wunderkammer cabinets of curiosities, where nobles and scholars formed their collections.

On the death of Rudolf II, the portrait of Vertumnus remained at the Prague court until 1648, when it was removed by Swedish armies as spoils of war. Today it is on display at Skokloster Castle, Sweden.

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