Giuseppe Arcimboldo – the consummate master of colorful allegories

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Kellner (winemaker)
Kellner (winemaker)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo is a famous Italian painter and decorator of the 16th century, a prominent representative of the portrait genre. A special place in the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo is occupied by curious allegorical paintings. The artist’s original manner of performance was appreciated not only by his contemporaries. But also by many connoisseurs of the art of subsequent eras.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was an extraordinary Mannerist painter. In his fantastic allegories, expressiveness and extravagance are taken to the extreme, and metaphorical images evoke a storm of emotions in the viewer. Therefore, the work of the Italian master had a huge impact on the surrealists, including their most famous representative – Salvador Dali.

Air, Giuseppe Arcimboldo


Giuseppe Arcimboldo was born in Milan in northern Italy in the artist’s family in 1526 or 1527. Unfortunately, more accurate information about the date of birth of the master has not survived to this day. Giuseppe’s distant paternal ancestors lived in southern Germany, but at the beginning of the 9th century they moved to Italy, where they were very successful. In particular, the artist’s great-great-grandfather was the archbishop of Milan for a long time.

His father instilled a love for painting in Giuseppe, he also taught his son the basics of fine art and persistently attracted him to work on painting the walls of temples, creating stained glass windows and tapestries.

In 1551, the young painter masterfully fulfilled the order of the King of Bohemia Ferdinand I to paint 5 coats of arms, which won the deep affection of the monarch. In the next 11 years, Giuseppe was persistently invited to the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, first by Ferdinand himself. And after his death – by the new emperor Maximilian II.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Emperor Rudolph II as Vertumnus
Emperor Rudolph II as Vertumnus

Yielding to persuasion, in 1562 Archimboldo left his native Milan and moved to Vienna, where he took the honorary position of court painter. His responsibilities also included the organization of solemn celebrations and entertainment performances. Giuseppe not only made the scenery, but also designed special machines for court tournaments with his own hands.

At the same time, Archimboldo began to write the famous allegories, which had tremendous success and really liked the heir of Maximilian II – the future Emperor Rudolph II. The artist truly became friends with the young crown prince and in 1570 he moved to Prague, where he lived permanently.

Eve (follower), Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Eve (follower)

After the coronation of Rudolph II in 1575, the position of Giuseppe Arcimboldo at the court of the emperor improved significantly.

The monarch periodically paid the artist substantial bonuses and even granted him and his son the heraldic nobility. The painter continued to create in his original manner and carried out the instructions of the king to fill the Vienna Kunstkamera with new samples.

In 1588, the aged master decided to return to Italy, despite the emperor’s persuasions. The artist spent 26 years abroad and was eager to spend the rest of his days in his homeland.

Fall, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Having settled in Milan, Archimboldo renewed old acquaintances and made new friends. The artist lived in prosperity and periodically sent completed orders to Rudolph II. The emperor highly appreciated the painter’s work and even awarded him the honorary title of Count Palatine in 1592.

But the life of Giuseppe Arcimboldo was inexorably approaching a sad end. For many years the artist suffered from acute urolithiasis, which became the cause of his death. On July 11, 1593, the painter died with his family at the age of about 66.


The most famous paintings

Among the most famous paintings by Giuseppe Arcimboldo are many original masterpieces. And yet, these works of the master deserve special attention:

  1. The cycle “The Seasons” (1560s) is the first in terms of time of writing and the most significant in popularity selection of allegories, consisting of 4 works. It was this series of paintings that showed the world a new original master of mannerism in all its glory.
  2. Cycle “Elements” or “Four Elements” (1566) – consonant with “The Seasons” cycle of four paintings, in which the artist clearly praises the power of Emperor Maximilian, recognizing his unconditional control over all the elements.
  3. The Librarian (1566) is a satirical depiction of a scholar of the Late Renaissance. There is also another theory according to which the painter makes fun of the book collectors in this work.
  4. “Portrait of Emperor Rudolph II in the Image of Vertumnus” (1590) – a painting from which the customer was literally delighted. For this work, the monarch granted the artist the title of Count Palatine.
  5. Head and Fruit Basket (1590) is the most famous shape-shifting painting in the painter’s work. On it, even an inexperienced viewer can easily identify both a luxurious still life and a person’s face.
Seated Image of Summer 1573
Seated Image of Summer 1573
Spring (follower)
Spring (follower)
Whimsical portrait
Whimsical portrait
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