HISTORY AND CULTURE
The fruits and vegetables of the Renaissance: Arcimboldo
24 Oct 2013 09.49 am by Renny Wijeyamohan
Riddles, jokes and double meanings permeate the unique portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Capturing the imagination of his contemporaries and the art world of today – Arcimboldo’s portraits, composite heads made up of colourful flora and fauna, are amongst art’s most recognisable images.
An anomaly amongst his peers and a forerunner of the Surrealist movement, who later championed his revival in the 20th century, Arcimboldo’s painting style was a product of the unique court culture of the Habsburg Court in Vienna. Commissioned as the official court artist between 1562 and 1587, Arcimboldo served the Holy Roman Emperors – Ferdinand I, Maximilian II and Rudolf II as a painter and costume designer. His standing within the Habsburg Court allowed Arcimboldo licence to create his playful and almost surreal portraits of court figures.
“They work in two ways and at different levels,” says says David Brown, Curator of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. “At a distance they just look like heads in profile or in three-quarter view. Up close they look like an incredible variety of nature’s wonders – plants of all kinds, vegetables, fruits, flowers and animals and sea creatures. They are what contemporaries called scherzi or capricci meaning ‘jokes’ or ‘games’ and it is very clear that that was how they were meant to be seen. They were a source of amusement and entertainment because there was this element of surprise.”
And surprising they are. Arcimboldo’s portrait of Rudolf II as Vertnumnus is a far cry from the self-aggrandising portraiture of rulers of the same era. A gourd makes up Rudolf’s forehead, his hair represented by grape bunches, apples, pears and wheat. His cheeks are rosy apples, his nose a brown pear while bright cherries form lips. Peapod eyebrows hover over dark grape eyes. Larger vegetables like pumpkins, turnips, onions, lettuces, cabbages and cucumbers overlap to form Rudolf’s powerful body – a sash of beautiful flowers decorating the “organic” military dress uniform.
In an earlier series, Arcimboldo produced four self-portraits of the artist as each of the four seasons. In Autumn, an oak barrel forms Arcimboldo’s body upon which are perched luscious pears, bright mushrooms, colourful apples and moist-looking grapes – a shiny pumpkin crowning the artist’s head. The offering implies the festivity of the grape harvest, and subsequent wine making, along with wildly draped hair reminiscent of an ancient mural of Bacchus.
Arcimboldo’s reversible images were important for two reasons: first, they pre-empted the still life movement that would emerge in the next century, and, second, they displayed a clever alacrity to switch between documentation of nature and a playful close up of a human head. “It seems like he began with a still life and then tried to make it look increasingly like a head,” says Brown, “The x-rays show that he rearranged the fruits in the dish or the platter to look more and more like a head.” In Portrait of Vegetables (The Gardener), Arcimboldo presents a bowl of farm produce which when inverted, cleverly captures the essence of the ruddy, bearded gardener who grew the vegetables in the first place.
Arcimboldo’s works give us a rare insight into an accurate scientific and cultural representation of the fruits and vegetables that made up the diets of (at least) the wealthy Viennese of the 16th century. The abundant fruits and vegetables are unstylised and realistic. Arcimboldo was less concerned about capturing the food in its best light – like the Dutch Masters [hyperlink to Allripe article on Dutch Masters] – instead he wanted the realism of his representations to evoke surprise through the hidden and playful composition. Take the onion for example in The Gardeners – it is wrinkled, vaguely spherical and has stringy threads protruding from its bulb – just like an onion you could pick up at the grocery store. It hasn’t been touched up by Photoshop. Again, in the Rudolf II as Vertumnus the gourd, pumpkin and radishes bulge naturally and unedited. Their natural depressions reminiscent of the actual fruit – helping to make up the natural countours of a hidden face, body and shoulders. It becomes clear then that what initially appears as lyrical visual puns are actually windows into the past allowing us to identify the specific characteristics of fruit circa 500 years ago. The realistic presentation of the abundant fruits and vegetables emphasise the importance of scientific documentation within Arcimboldo’s work. “Every plant, every grass, every flower is recognisable from a scientific point of view”, notes Lucia Tomasi Tongiorgi a professor of art history at the University of Pisa in an interview with the Smithsonian Magazine, “That’s not a joke. It’s knowledge.”An anomaly amongst his peers and a forerunner of the Surrealist movement, who later championed his revival in the 20th century, Arcimboldo’s painting style was a product of the unique court culture of the Habsburg Court in Vienna. Commissioned as the official court artist between 1562 and 1587, Arcimboldo served the Holy Roman Emperors – Ferdinand I, Maximilian II and Rudolf II as a painter and costume designer. His standing within the Habsburg Court allowed Arcimboldo licence to create his playful and almost surreal portraits of court figures.
Arcimboldo’s works give us a rare insight into an accurate scientific and cultural representation of the fruits and vegetables that made up the diets of (at least) the wealthy Viennese of the 16th century, and the delight that this social demographic took in visual play and imagery.
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