(b. 1526, Milano, d. 1593, Milano)


Italian painter, draughtsman and tapestry designer, active also in Austria and Bohemia. He came from a distinguished Milanese family that included a number of archbishops of the city; his father was the painter Biagio Arcimboldo. He is first documented in 1549, working with his father for Milan Cathedral; he received payments until 1558 for supplying paintings, designs for an altar baldachin and stained-glass windows for the cathedral.

In 1556 he worked with Giuseppe Meda on frescoes for the Cathedral of Monza, a work that must have been completed by 1562. In 1558, he drew the cartoon for a large tapestry of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, which still hangs in the Como Cathedral today. On the basis of stylistic comparison with the windows in Milan and the frescoes in Monza, the design of a tapestry representing St John the Baptist Preaching and Baptizing (Monza, Museo e Tesoro del Duomo) can be attributed to Arcimboldo.

In 1562 he became court portraitist to Ferdinand I at the Habsburg court in Vienna, and later, to Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II at the court in Prague. A group of portraits representing persons at the Habsburg court can be attributed to Arcimboldo. At the Imperial Court his original and grotesque fantasy was almost immediately unleashed. He invented a portrait type consisting of painted animals, flowers, fruit, and objects composed to form a human likeness. Some are satiric portraits of court personages, and others are allegorical personifications.

Arcimboldo's conventional work, on traditional religious subjects, has fallen into oblivion, but his portraits of human heads made up of flowers, vegetables, fruit, animals, sea creatures and tree roots, were greatly admired by his contemporaries and remain a source of fascination today. Arcimboldo's most famous paintings had contemporary allegorical meanings and were unique compositions of edibles and culinary objects placed together in such a way as to represent the contours or heads of cooks, gardeners, waiters, and symbolic figures related to the world of sciences. He was not prolific, but his paintings of fantastic heads and social satirical subjects were popular.

There is a codex in the manuscript collection of the Ă–sterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, which contains original studies of animals drawn from nature. Some of these drawings can be related to Arcimboldo's painting Earth, and it was suggested that Arcimboldo was the author of a group of drawings to be found in this codex (Codex min. 42). The contents of the codex are representations of animals and plants.

Arcimboldo was also the court decorator and costume designer. He also created the illusionistic sceneries for the Habsburg court theater. His drawings for courtly pageants were included in the Habsburg imperial art collection. Emperor Rudolf II set him the task of researching and buying works of art and natural curiosities, as well as giving him countless commissions for paintings.

Arcimboldo's work became especially well known throughout Europe after the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II exhibited Arcimboldo's paintings in the many residences of the Habsburg imperial family. In fact Arcimboldo's bizarre pieces and grotesque portraits pleased the Habsburg emperor so much that he appointed the Italian painter Habsburg court painter at Vienna and Prague and also made him a count palatine.

Arcimboldo's style has been so often imitated over the centuries that it is sometimes difficult to make exact attributions. He has been seen by some as the forerunner of Surrealism in the 20th century, but, more to the point, he should be seen in his own context at the end of the Renaissance. This was a time when people (collectors and scientists alike) were beginning to pay more attention to nature.

In 1587 Arcimboldo went back to Milan but stayed in contact with the Emperor. Towards the end of his life, he sent the Emperor the idiosyncratic portrait of him in the guise of the Greek god Vertumnus. His Italian contemporaries honoured him with poetry and manuscripts celebrating his illustrious career. He died in Milan in 1593.

When the Swedish army invaded Prague in 1648, during the Thirty Years' War, many of Arcimboldo's paintings were taken from Rudolf II's collection.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil KrĂ©n and Daniel Marx.