- Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Italian, 1527-1593
About the Artist
Giuseppe Arcimboldo [jew-SEP-pay arch-im-BOLD-OH] was born to a distinguished family in Milan, Italy, and began working as an artist at the Milan Cathedral, creating stained glass, fabrics, and paintings. His father, a painter, probably provided his early training. As the official artist and Master of Festivals for three successive German Emperors, Arcimboldo designed costumes, stage settings, chariots, and other diversions for courtly events and ceremonies. He was also in charge of making acquisitions for the royal cabinet of curiosities, which included art, antiques, curios, oddities of nature, and exotic animals and birds. He engineered creative water works, and even dreamed up a “color-piano” that was played by court musicians. He was perfect for the job and was richly rewarded for his inventiveness.
Arcimboldo was best known for his fantastical “composite head” paintings. These were portraits composed of objects such as fruit, flowers, books, or even a plate of meat. During his time, he acquired international fame and the public reacted to his paintings much the way we do today: with admiration, humor, and fascination. Summer belongs to a set of four paintings that depict the four seasons of the year. Arcimboldo and his workshop painted numerous copies of this set, as did many imitators of the master.
What Inspired It
Arcimboldo, a master of allegory, painted each portrait in the Four Seasons series using vegetation associated with that time of year. While his paintings amused and fascinated wealthy courtiers with their apparent whimsy, they also appealed to the intellect. For this set, Arcimboldo suggested that each season corresponds to a stage of human life: Spring stands for youth; Winter, old age; and Summer shows a man in his prime. The series also carried a specific political message—the paintings were meant to symbolically glorify the Emperor. As an Emperor ruled over human affairs, he could also be said to run the greater world, including the seasons. The harmonious combinations of fruit and vegetables reflect the harmony that exists under the Emperor’s rule. Each head also wears something that can be seen as a wreath or a crown. Because of the underlying political messages, these paintings were the perfect, flattering gift for the German Emperors to give to other courts.
The artist’s name is woven into the wheat on Summer’s collar. The date 1572 can be found on his shoulder.
Arcimboldo painted each piece of fruit realistically and arranged them to form an actual human face, imitating skin and musculature, all the while creating a character with personality. A row of peas in a pod make for perfectly spaced teeth, while ripe cherries form plump lips. A round peach creates the perfect rosy cheek and a cucumber imitates a bumpy weathered nose.
The profile format of this painting was probably inspired by portrait heads of Roman emperors, known to Renaissance artists as depicted on Roman coinage. By using the same format in his portraits, Arcimboldo associated Emperor Rudolph II—to whom these works were linked—with a powerful Roman emperor.
Summer depicts green grapes, plums, mulberries, melon, hazelnuts, assorted pears, cherries, peaches, corn, garlic bulbs, onions, pea pods, eggplant, various squashes, cucumber, artichokes, and wheat.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- The titles of Arcimboldo’s portraits are very often indicative of what is being depicted. Show the students several different composite portraits. Have the class identify the components which make up the portraits and try to figure out who (a librarian, a gardener, a season) is being portrayed.
- Practice foreign language vocabulary using Arcimboldo portraits. Divide the class into 4 groups and assign each group one of Arcimboldo’s seasons. Have each group identify the components that make up each composite allegory of the seasons. Each group will then present to the rest of the class, teaching the vocabulary demonstrated in the portrait. For more advanced language classes, have the students write a poem inspired by one of Arcimboldo’s portraits.