During one of my first visits to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, when I was still in primary school, I saw Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s composite heads for the first time. I recall thinking that I liked the colours and that I could recognize some of the objects he used in his compositions; Arcimboldo’s paintings became engrained in my memory. Over the years his works have lost none of their fascination to me and most people who had the pleasure of seeing a painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593) in real life will likely agree that one can actually re-discover these paintings every single time you look at them.
After over 400 years some of the most famous and virtuoso works of the court painter of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II are united again in Vienna at the Kunsthistorisches Museum for the current exhibition Arcimboldo: Rediscovered – Two Paintings as Guests. Out of some twenty original composite heads known, the exhibition includes four works which have been kept in the Habsburg collection, forming the base of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. However, most importantly after a century out of sight of the public eye the Flora (ca. 1589) and Flora Meretrix (ca. 1590), which have been held in private collections from the 1960s onwards, can be admired for the first time in a public museum.
Whoever is familiar with the patronage of Rudolf II, his courtly painters and with early modern private encyclopaedic collections called cabinets of curiosity will be familiar with Arcimboldo who is celebrated as the archetype of a sixteenth century Kunst- and Wunderkammer painters. The artistic environment at the court of Rudolf II towards the end of the sixteenth century was a thriving one and estimates say that the emperor may have possessed over a thousand paintings and other art objects in his galleries. Rudolf II had a taste particularly for Italian artists who can be described as working in the late mannerist style, using elongated figures, exaggerated movements and often grotesque shapes. The emperor devoted a large share of his time to collecting and commissioning art in order to glorify his often troubled rule of the Habsburg Empire, which ended in a feud over succession between him and his brothers. These galleries and the Kunstkammer would be opened during visits of high dignitaries in order to demonstrate wealth, knowledge, advance and command of the world in miniature and stir up conversations.
Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo had already worked at the court of Rudolf II’s father Maximilian II from 1562, before working in Prague until the end of the sixteenth century. The painter made portraits and worked as outfitter at court; however his composite heads are the most outstanding pieces for their great attention to detail, which shows an already scientifically observant approach towards things natural and man-made. According to a particular subject these types of “portraits” are conglomerates of mainly quotidian, natural or scientific objects. The creative re-collection of singular items into metaphorical figures not only shows creativeness on behalf of the painter but also the wish to construct a microcosm within a picture frame on behalf of its patrons. The notion of small individual objects producing a bigger, unified whole is also the principle underlying the idea of the Kunst- and Wunderkammer collection in which the composite heads would be kept. Additionally the paintings also testify of the scientific advancement of the time which is documented through the work of Conrad Gessner or artists like Joris Hoefnagel employed at the Rudolfine court, who recorded the natural world in meticulously detailed drawings of plants, insects and animals. Arcimboldo most likely took individual nature studies as starting point for various elements of his paintings of natural allegories.
The highlights of Arcimboldo Rediscovered are no doubt the celebrated Flora and Flora Meretrix. After Arcimboldo had moved back to Italy 1587, he sent these two paintings to the Hadraschin in Prague, Rudolf II’s imperial palace. However, the works did not stay in the imperial collection for long once the emperor had passed. The palace was sacked by the Swedish army in 1648 and the paintings together with countless other art works came into the possession of the Swedish royal family. Since the second half of the seventeenth century the paintings have been kept in private collections until they were auctioned off in London in 1965. Once more the paintings disappeared from the public eye when they were sold into private collections again where they have been kept ever since. Although the current owners are not known to the public it is clear that the paintings have been kept in excellent condition and have not lost any of the vivacity of their rich colour palette. The opulent play of colours is further enhanced by the modern stone inlaid frames, which are modelled on sixteenth century frames.
The Flora is symbolic for the abundance of the floral world, showing the female figure’s hair to be blooming flowers in red, yellow, white and violet shades similar to the woman’s collar while the cloak is made entirely of green leaves. It even appears as if all sorts of floral shapes are shining through the lady’s gleaming skin. The chin, cheeks and mid-forehead appear to have been made of peonies, the lips are made of slightly darker pink rose buds and even the eyes are composed of small vegetal parts. Flora was the Roman goddess of vegetation and fertility and is symbolic of the awakening of nature. Flora was thus the pendant picture to Rudolf II’s Vertumnus (ca. 1590) the god of vegetation.
The second painting, the Flora Meretrix shows a woman with golden hair possibly of wheat braided with abundantly prospering blossoms. Equally to the Flora she has a green leave cloak with a collar of mainly white flowers while plant life also shines through or makes up for her flesh. However, contrary to the slightly early painting this figure’s face seems more human and her cloak is slightly open to expose her right breast, her nipple is also made of a bud with a small insect resting on it. Altogether this portrayal of vegetation and its plenty also seems to have some moral overtones as it is less restrained then the Flora and the young woman directly look out at the viewer in a coquettish way. Therefore, the figure portrayed here appears to be an allusion to the Roman prostitute who commemorated the goddess Flora by celebrating lavish festivals like the festivity of Floralia and spending all her wealth on it. The insects added on the cloak and the bared skin, enhance the allusion to earthly joys exemplified in the youthful lady.
The Flora and Flora Meretrix were once hung together with the Vertumnus in Prague, an allegorical portrait of Rudolf II as the Roman god of nature and growth. These paintings were not only inspired by contemporary studies of nature but also by ancient poems such as Ovid’s Fasti, introducing the above-mentioned allegorical figures. Moreover, Arcimboldo created visual puns and likewise was a poet himself, he sometimes even wrote poetry on his paintings as is the case with his Vertumnus. Most likely these paintings formed part of a wider theme in the emperor’s Kunstkammer which allude to the coming of a prospering golden age, initiated by the emperor’s rule and thus glorified his public persona as a just and rightful ruler. Flora has created the blossoming earthly garden and Rudolf II rules proudly over its affluence as Vertumnus.
As Thomas da Costa Kauffmann remarked in his recently published monograph work on the artist, Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting (University of Chicago Press, 2009), the painter has received increased attention since his art historical rediscovery in the 1930s. From the early twentieth century the painter became gradually more popular in contemporary culture for his morphing figures and his images were spread largely through their use in advertisements.
What Arcimboldo achieved with his eye for detail and his great skill which after over 400 years conveys the careful hand of a rightly famed master, is in my opinion not a plea to turn to the study inside the confines of a Kunstkammer. Instead the master prompts us to open our eyes to the detail of the things that surround us in daily life, in the nature that environs us. The natural world which the artist recorded specifically at his time was then largely ruled by the most eminent benefactor of the arts and collector of his works, Rudolf II. Not only do Arcimboldo’s works record the advancement of science and the arts at the monarch’s court but they serve to glorify the sovereign’s generous patronage and lawful dominion. Arcimboldo urges the viewer to go out and discover the vivacity and multi-faceted world of Mother Nature, which is notionally prospering principally through the emperor’s worthy rule. Meanwhile and ironically, we, as contemporary viewers have to venture into museums to understand the painter’s century old plea for the beauty and variety of the fauna and flora beyond our door steps. Re-discovering these highly detailed and meticulously accomplished works is worthwhile a visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Carina Korab (University of Nottingham MA 2014)
Arcimboldo: Rediscovered – Two Paintings as Guests is at theKunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna until 15th February 2015.