Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, like Hieronymus Bosch, was an artist several centuries ahead of his time. He was born into a distinguished Milanese family of archbishops, jurists and artists in 1527, when the Italian Renaissance was in full flower. 

In the Service of Emperors

In 1562 Arcimboldo crossed the Alps to Vienna for a position as court portraitist and festival organiser for Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand I (r. 1558-1564), who died almost immediately after Archimboldo’s arrival. Fortunately, emperor Maximilian II (r. 1564-1576) and his young son Rudolf II (r. 1576-1612), decided to honor Arcimboldo’s contract.
Rudolf II became quite fond of Arcimboldo, who crafted grand costume pageants in the boy’s honor, such as a spectacle in which the six-year-old Rudolf played the part of a knighted dwarf in full plate armor among adults dressed as giants and monsters.

A Bohemian Parnassus

Rudolf II was known by his contemporaries as the greatest art patron in the world and Prague became, under Rudolf’s guidance, one of the leading centers for the arts and sciences on the European continent.
The Rudolfine taste for outstanding decoration and fantastic imagery were legendary, and his ambition and insight as a patron and collector changed the way art would be viewed by future generations. He brought into his service some of the most important European artists, architects and scientists. 

Rudolfine Prague was a scene of communication, collaboration and commentary between artists, scholars and scientists. This interdisciplinary cross-pollination had a strong influence on Arcimboldo’s painting, helping him to combine classical allusion and allegory with contemporary painting techniques. 

In 1587 Arcimboldo left the court in Prague to return to his family home in Milan.


It was in Milan that he produced his most famous work, Vertumnus, a portrait of Rudolf II re-imagined as the Roman god of metamorphoses in nature and life. It depicts Rudolf’s face composed of fruit and flowers, symbolising the perfect balance and harmony with nature that his reign represented.

Vertumnus reached Rudolf during the winter of 1591. On May Day, 1592, Rudolf II granted his childhood friend the title of Count Palatine, which guaranteed that Archimboldo and his heirs would enjoy continued income and status for generations. Giuseppe Arcimboldo died shortly thereafter on July 11th, 1593, in his home in Milan.

After Arcimboldo

Arcimboldo’s influence on his contemporaries was surprisingly minimal. Several anonymous artists produced paintings highly derivative of this style in the decades following Archimboldo's death, but none of them made any effort to push forward his ideas and themes. That is; with the exception of a quartet of seasonal portraits painted in the 17th Century by Flemish landscape pioneer Joos de Momper, and a few satirical composite portraits used in political posters and cartoons.

The late 18th Century movement from Realism to Impressionism was hardly influenced by Arcimboldo’s work, instead creating large-scale forms out of non-representational building blocks to mimic perception rather than layering symbolism upon symbolism.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century that Arcimboldo was rediscovered by the Modernists and Surrealists. We see echoes of Arcimboldo in the works of Pablo Picasso, George Grosz, Rene Magritte and, especially, Salvador Dalí. Dalí called Arcimboldo the “father of Surrealism”.