Discover the whimsical Renaissance fruit portraits

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During the Italian Renaissance, painters and sculptors discovered a renewed interest in classical ideals and naturalism. Famous artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo created exquisite works of art that celebrated the human form. However, not all art of the period pursued these ideals. There was another side of the Renaissance that was fascinated by depictions of the bizarre. This niche is best exemplified in the whimsical portrait paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

A longtime court painter to the Holy Roman Empire, he created numerous portraits of nobles and other notable figures from an assortment of fruits, vegetables and objects. This whimsical approach was not only intended to be amusing, but also to allude to deeper qualities of the sitter or the person to whom these works were presented – in most cases, the Habsburg Emperor. Today, these paintings are celebrated for their skillful use of different components to create silhouettes that look believable from afar and far more abstract up close.

Scroll down to learn more about the artist and the meaning behind some of his famous Assemblage paintings.

Who is Giuseppe Arcimboldo?

Self-Portrait by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Self-Portrait”, ca. 1570s (Photo: Wikimedia Commonspublic domain)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 – 1593) was a 16th-century Italian Renaissance artist best known for his assemblage portraits. Originally from Milan, he spent most of his early years working on designs for tapestries, stained glass windows and frescoes for local churches. Later, when the artist was 36, he became court portraitist to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II and moved to Vienna, Austria. There, Arcimboldo was surrounded by scholars from various disciplines, including scientists, physicians, and astronomers; he felt free to experiment in his art. While he also made conventional portraits of the emperor and his family, they were largely overshadowed by his whimsical cornucopias.

the Assemblage Portrait Painting used fruits, flowers, and sometimes objects (like books) to create a humorous depiction of the subject. While many of these plays subtly made fun of the persona they were based on – most of whom were wealthy nobles and royalty – they also served another purpose. During the Renaissance there was a niche for paintings that captured an element of the bizarre that was considered entertaining to look at.

Famous Assemblage Paintings

vertumnus

Vertumnus fruit portrait by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Vertumnus”, 1591 (Photo: Erik Lernestål via Wikimedia Commonspublic domain)

Created 1591, vertumnus is Arcimboldo’s most famous painting and is considered his main work. It was commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and depicts the king himself as an assortment of fruit, vegetables and flowers. The selection of objects alludes to the Roman god of the seasons, change and the plant world, called Vertumnus.

While the painting appears humorous, it also has a deeper meaning. The selection of fruit and vegetables was intended to reflect the transformative political power of Rudolf II and his balance between nature, art and science.

The four Seasons

Four Seasons Portrait Painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Right: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Spring”, 1563 (Photo: Wikimedia Commonspublic domain)
Left: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Summer” 1563 (Photo: Wikimedia Commonspublic domain)

The four Seasons is a series of four portrait paintings inspired by Spring, Summer, Autumn and Fall. They were made for Emperor Maximilian II between 1563 and 1572 and presented alongside Arcimboldo’s other series, The four elements. Each piece reflects a season with a unique arrangement.

springshows, for example, the profile of a woman who consists entirely of different types of flowers. summer uses fruit, vegetables and straw to create a portrait of another woman. autumn, on the other hand, is a male composed of seasonal fruits such as apples and pairs, as well as nuts, leaves, and wood. Last, winter is another male portrait – this one uses a tree trunk, leaves and a lemon and orange which are winter fruits.

Four Seasons Portrait Painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Right: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Autumn”, 1573 (Photo: Wikimedia Commonspublic domain)
Left: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Winter” 1563 (Photo: Wikimedia Commonspublic domain)

The librarian

The Librarian Portrait Painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “The Librarian”, 1566 (Photo: Samuel Uhrdin via Wikimedia Commonspublic domain)

It is believed that Arcimboldo created The librarian around 1566, and he based the figure on a humanist and historian named Wolfgang Lazius. Instead of fruit or vegetables, Arcimboldo references the character’s profession by creating a well-placed stack of books.

Most interpretations of this painting consider it a satirization by scholars who focus on the material nature of books rather than the content. There is also a chance that the painting is not mocking but celebrating the working people.

The four elements

Four Seasons Portrait Painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Right: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Fire”, 1566 (Photo: Wikimedia Commonspublic domain)
Left: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Air” c. 1566 (Photo: Wikimedia Commonspublic domain)

founded in 1566, The four elements is Arcimboldo’s other famous series of portraits for Maximilian II. In this set he represented each of the four elements with animals and objects. During the making of these paintings the artist was living at the court of the Holy Roman Empire in Prague and had access to the many types of Wild animals kept in the city for research purposes.

air, for example, uses numerous birds, including a peacock, a pheasant, a duck, and an eagle, to create the portrait of a young male figure. Likewise, water, is a cluster of dozens of aquatic creatures, such as fish, a turtle, an octopus and a crab. Together they form the silhouette of a female figure. Earth is one of the more ambitious paintings in the series and has several land animals layered in the shape of a face. Firehowever, is the only work from this series that shows objects and not animals. Wood, flint, steel, weapons and cannons burn inside the bust. The armory theme refers to the war between the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire.

Four Elements Portrait Painting

Right: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Water”, 1566 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Left: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Earth” c. 1566 (Photo: Wikimedia Commonspublic domain)

On the subject of matching items:

How the lesser-known “Venetian School” flourished during the Italian Renaissance

Sandro Botticelli: The Renaissance artist who became the master of mythological scenes

20 Famous Italian Renaissance Paintings That Left Their Mark On History

Explore ‘Lady with an Ermine’, an often forgotten Renaissance portrait by Leonardo da Vinci

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