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Art and Images in Psychiatry
May 2, 2011

Arcimboldo's Vertumnus: A Portrait of Rudolf II

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(5):442-443. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.41

Whoever you are, looking at me,

A strange deformed image,

With a laugh on your lips

That flashes in your eyes

And stamps your face

With novel happiness

 . . . for on the outside

I seem a monster, and on the inside

I hide a kingly image, and

A heavenly resemblance . . . 

Holy, invincible, supreme, august

And righteous Rudolf, honour of Austria . . . 

—Gregorio Comanini, The Figino, or on the Purpose of Painting, 15911(p19,24)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) was a creative force in the courts of Maximilian II (1527-1576) and his son Rudolf II (1552-1612), Habsburg emperors of the Holy Roman Empire in Vienna and Prague.2,3 Originally recruited as a court painter, Arcimboldo saw his role rapidly expand to arranging lavish court ceremonies (royal marriages, festivities for a royal crowning), designing costumes and masques for balls, and organizing tournaments. He designed ducal coats of arms, decorated organ cases, and proposed a colorimetric system for musical transcription, wherein a melody might be represented by small spots of color on a sheet of paper. And he composed poems about his paintings. For all these creative activities, he was granted the title of Count Palatinate the year after completing his portrait of Rudolf II as Vertumnus; the title was a rare honor given to only 3 artists in the 16th century, one Arcimboldo shared with Titian.Image description not available.

					Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593), Italian. Portrait of Rudolf II as Vertumnus, 1590. Oil on wood, 70.5 × 57.5 cm. © Skokloster Castle, Sweden. Photo credit: Samuel Uhrdin.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593), Italian. Portrait of Rudolf II as Vertumnus, 1590. Oil on wood, 70.5 × 57.5 cm. © Skokloster Castle, Sweden. Photo credit: Samuel Uhrdin.

Today he is best known for his remarkable composite portraits (cover) that demonstrate his wittiness and, on viewing, surely bring a smile (epigraph). At first, Arcimboldo drew on the natural world and juxtaposed items such as seasonal fruits, vegetables, trees, and flowers to create faces.2 He began with the personification of the 4 Seasons, completed in 1563. Three years later, he finalized the 4 Elements ; both series were presented to Emperor Maximilian II on New Year's Day in 1569. Depicting youth in Spring and old age in Winter, the Seasons represent the seasons of one's life. Spring 's face is that of a young man composed entirely of flowers while Winter 's face is framed by a gnarled tree trunk. Summer is composed of ears of corn and vegetables. Autumn is filled with seasonal fruit; the eye of Autumn is a small plum.

For the element Water, he used sea creatures to form a composite head and for Earth, various animals; each of them signifies a human attribute. For example, the crafty fox is shown at the brow of the head: its tail forms the eyebrows. Earth 's cheek is an elephant, believed in that era to symbolize modesty. Moreover, the faces were composed to complement one another and to be displayed together. The seasons Autumn and Winter and the elements Air and Fire were male, and Spring and Summer, Earth and Water, were female, conforming to their Latin grammatical genders.

The corresponding pictures— Air/Spring, Summer/Fire, Autumn/Earth, and Winter/Water —complement one another in gender and were displayed facing one another. These images were meant not only to entertain but also symbolically to glorify the Habsburg dynasty by representing the harmony of the empire in representations of humanity naturally embedded in the seasons and the elements. So pleased was Emperor Maximilian that he had himself costumed as Arcimboldo's Winter in a seasonal celebration. Rudolf hung copies of paintings of the Seasons in his bedroom and ordered additional copies to give to leading dignitaries. Arcimboldo also made composite portraits of individuals of the royal household. The Librarian (Figure 1) depicts the curator of the imperial collections and historian, Wolfgang Lazius (1514-1565), composed in books. His hair is shown as an inverted open book, the spine of a book forms his nose, and his fingers are protruding bookmarks.

Figure 1. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593), Italian. The Librarian, 1566. Oil on canvas, 97 × 71 cm. © Skokloster Castle, Sweden. Photo credit: Samuel Uhrdin.

Figure 1. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593), Italian. The Librarian, 1566. Oil on canvas, 97 × 71 cm. © Skokloster Castle, Sweden. Photo credit: Samuel Uhrdin.

Roland Barthes, French philosopher, literary theorist, and semiotician, writes

that, like a baroque poet, Arcimboldo exploits the “curiosities” of language, plays on synonymy and homonymy. His painting has a linguistic foundation, his imagination is poetic in the proper sense of the word: it does not create signs, it combines them, permutes them, deflects them—exactly what a craftsman of language does.4(pp15,16)

He points out that rhetoric and its figures is how the West has always viewed language. In language, there can be transferences of meaning (metaboles) that can be coded and named; thus, Arcimboldo is a rhetorician. In his art, a shell stands for an ear (metaphor), a grouping of fish stands for the Water in which they live (metonymy), and Fire is a flaming head (allegory). The inclusion of fruits and ears of grain to compose Summer is an allusion. Using a fish for a nose in one place and a mouth in another is antanaclasis (repeating a word in a way that changes its meaning). Finally, he notes that annomination or paronomasia is a form of punning. It evokes one thing by another that has the same form: for example, a nose by the rump of a bird. Thus, Arcimboldo makes a visual pun that may comment on the character of the person in his portrait The Jurist, possibly imperial vice-chancellor Johann Ulrich Zasius.2(p60) Barthes' approach to Arcimboldo's rhetoric challenges the viewer to examine his paintings more closely.

The best known of Arcimboldo's composite portraits is that of Rudolf II as the Etruscan god Vertumnus (Latin, vertēre means “to change”). Said in Roman mythology to be present at the founding of Rome, Vertumnus is the god of the changing seasons who retains an underlying permanence3(p66)—surface changes but with an enduring presence. He oversaw the seasonal growth of gardens, wild plants, and fruit trees. Arcimboldo's Vertumnus was completed, along with the complementary Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and the season of spring (Figure 2), after his formal retirement from the Habsburg court to Milan, when conditions there were more favorable to his creativity following his “long faithful and conscientious service” to the emperor.

Figure 2. 

					Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593), Italian. Flora, 1591. Oil on wood, 72.8 × 56.3 cm. Location: private collection, Paris, France. Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York, New York.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593), Italian. Flora, 1591. Oil on wood, 72.8 × 56.3 cm. Location: private collection, Paris, France. Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York, New York.

Rudolf 's portrait is a composite of painted fruits, flowers, and vegetables harmoniously drawn together from each of the 4 seasons.1 His hair is constructed from millet, grapes, sheaves of wheat, and an ear of corn. His nose is a pear; an apple and peach form the cheeks. His forehead is a melon, and his beard is made up of nuts and chestnuts. One eye is a cherry and the other a red mulberry. A ripe fig hangs down from his left ear. Seasonal flowers sprout from his chest. Arcimboldo's transformation of the emperor's face to that of Vertumnus has political, poetic, and symbolic import. Politically, Rudolf II is shown as master, not only of the temporal life of his subjects through his rule, but as the lord of nature. This depiction is consistent with Rudolf 's lifelong alchemical search to find the hidden laws that underlie the works of nature.

Poetically, Vertumnus' story is told in Ovid's Metamorphoses.5 Vertumnus can transform his form at will while Rudolf was known for his changing moods and melancholy. In the Metamorphoses, Vertumnus changes into various forms to trick and seduce chaste Pomona.6 Guardian of fruit trees and devoted to them, Pomona turned away all suitors. After assuming various forms but failing to convince her to marry him, Vertumnus disguised himself as a motherly old woman to gain entry to Pomona's orchard. There, in motherly form, he sought to convince Pomona of his virtues. Still failing to convince her by argument, the old woman narrates an apocryphal story about the dangers of rejecting a suitor.5(pp511-514)

In a tale about Greek youths, Iphis is rejected by Anaxarete and threatens suicide. Anaxarete is unmoved by his final plea for her love; Iphis commits suicide by hanging. He positions his body outside her door so that as he dies, his dangling body bangs against her door. Anaxarete turns away when Iphis' funeral bier passes under her window. To punish her emotional coldness, the gods turn her to stone. When this veiled threat also fails to move Pomona, Vertumnus finally assumes his true godly form. On seeing his magnificence, Pomona finally, but reluctantly, relents and agrees to marry him.

Gregorio Comanini's poem1 (AD 1591) remains the best contemporary description of Arcimboldo's painting and is consistent with Ovid's description of Vertumnus in referring to Rudolf 's heavenly presence (epigraph). Symbolically Vertumnus is linked to fellow god Hermes Trismegistus, father of alchemy. Rudolf believed that men and nature are linked through hidden sources of knowledge and supported the alchemical goal of finding the philosopher's stone and discovering the sacred harmony underlying natural phenomena. To this end, he consulted alchemists and astrologers (Nostradamus prepared his horoscope), a mainstream practice in the Renaissance period, and encouraged their search and research. Through alchemical understanding, Rudolf sought control and dominion over nature. With his lifelong hope to find the philosopher's stone, he brought Europe's best alchemists to his court in Prague for advice. And he carried out his own experiments in private alchemy.

Although often not fully appreciated, Rudolf 's religiously tolerant court in Prague led the transition from the thought of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the 17th-century Age of Reason. Rudolf served as a patron to natural philosophers, including botanist Charles de l’Écluse and astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. He brought humanists—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—into a single body of scholars. With Rudolf 's support, Kepler correctly demonstrated that the orbits of Earth and Mars were elliptical; Galileo incorrectly believed them to be circular. Kepler's accomplishments were applauded in Prague, but Galileo was condemned in Rome.

In 1648, nearly 4 decades after the death of Rudolf II, the Swedish sacked Prague during the Thirty Years' War that pitted Catholic against Protestant, which followed Rudolf 's religiously tolerant rule. Arcimboldo's portrait passed into the collection of Queen Christina of Sweden and afterwards to Baron von Essen in Skokloster Castle, where it resides to this day.

Although Rudolf did not find the philosopher's stone, the open-mindedness he established in his court toward art and science in an era of religious turmoil between Catholics and Protestants set the stage for the modern scientific world view.3 As for Arcimboldo, his creative composite portraits and his serious visual jokes2 reveal him to be the true Vertumnus, master of changes and transformations.7

Comanini  G The Figino, or on the Purpose of Painting: Art Theory in the Late Renaissance. Maiorino  GDoyle-Anderson  Aeds. Toronto, ON University of Toronto Press2001;
Kaufman  TD Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Paintings.  Chicago, IL University of Chicago Press2009;
Marshall  P The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague.  New York, NY Walker & Co2006;
Barthes  R Arcimboldo.  Parma, Italy Franco Maria Ricci1978;
 Ovid Metamorphoses.  Martin  Ctrans. New York, NY WW Norton & Co2004;
Gentilcore  R The landscape of desire: the tale of Pomona and Vertumnus in Ovid's Metamorphoses.  Phoenix 1995;49110- 120Google ScholarCrossref
Hulten  P The Arcimboldo Effect: Transformations of the Face From the 16th to the 20th Century.  New York, NY Abbeville Publishers1987;