Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Italian (1527-1593)

  One of the most bizarre and distinctive painters in the whole of art history, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) owes his reputation to the series of composite portraits of heads made up of a variety of objects, both natural and man-made. Most of these paintings were created at the court of Rudolf II, who hired Arcimboldo as his court painter, placing him at the centre of Rudolf's eccentric menagerie of artists, scientists and charlatans.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was born in Milan in 1527 into a highly distinguished family, which boasted archbishops (including his grandfather), jurists and artists (including his father Biagio). Little is known about his early life, but his connections with Milanese nobility undoubtedly helped him secure work designing frescoes and windows for the cathedral. In 1562 he travelled across the Alps to Vienna to become the portraitist and copyist to the Hapsburg court, at the invitation of Emperor Maximilian II (his talent having been noted by Maximilian's father Ferdinand I, who employed him as a painter of conventional portraits). Under Maximilian's patronage he produced his first series of the Seasons and the Elements, which were formally presented to the Emperor on New Year's Day, 1569.

In 1570 Arcimboldo was sent to Prague, to design an elaborate pageant for Maximilian that blended classical and Czech mythology, and he was to perform similar duties for Maximilian's son Rudolf II, when he ascended the Hapsburg throne in 1575. Arcimboldo designed the festivities for Rudolf's coronation and other state events, while spending his spare time devising hydraulic machines and new forms of musical notation using colours.

In 1591 he produced his masterpiece, Vertumnus, an allegorical portrait of his master Rudolf II as the Roman god of metamorphoses in nature and life, with Rudolf's face made up of fruit and flowers, symbolising the perfect balance between nature and harmony that his reign allegedly represented. Arcimboldo died in 1593.

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