15 Strange Facts About Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Unusual Portraits

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Sixteenth century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo followed in the footsteps of his father, Biagio, training in stained glass and fresco painting. But it was this imaginative Italian's curious take on portraits—composite heads composed of flowers, fruits, and other inanimate objects—that have defined his legacy. 

1. ARCIMBOLDO EXPLORED HIS STYLE AS A COURT PAINTER. 

Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I first claimed the artist and his talents for Vienna in 1562, where Arcimboldo served as court painter for his son and successor Maximilian II. He continued with the Habsburgs under Maximilian II, and when Rudolf II moved the court from Vienna to Prague, Arcimboldo made the move as well. In honor of Maximilian II, Arcimboldo began experimenting, creating The Four Seasons, a series of portraits in profile that constructed faces out of blooming blossoms, swollen gourds, withered roots, and ripe grain. He also dabbled in interior design and costume creations.

2. HIS ROYAL PORTRAITS BUCKED CONVENTION. 

Arcimboldo didn't just personify the seasons with produce. His most famous piece is a portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who was so fond of having his likeness captured that he contracted several acclaimed artists to do so. Germany's Hans von Aachen presented the emperor with a frilly collar and a generous chin. Dutch sculptor Adrian de Vries made a regal bust of the monarch. Arcimboldo reimagined him as Vertumnus, the Roman God of plant life, building his cheeks with peaches, his neck with chives, and his hair with grapes and grain. 

3. NOT ALL OF HIS PORTRAITS WERE ORGANIC. 

The Librarian built a scholar out of books. The Waiter constructed a server out of barrels and bottles. The Jurist utilized books, a chicken carcass, and a bit of fish. 

4. ARCIMBOLDO WAS A MASTER OF CAPRICCIOSA AND SCHERZI. 

These words translate loosely to whimsical and games. The artist's mosaic masterpieces were intended to be playful, entertaining, and humorous, sometimes at others' expense. 

5. ONE PIECE MAY BE THROWING SHADE. 

Art historians suspect The Jurist is a depiction of Maximilian's duplicitous vice-chancellor, Ulrich Zasius. Rather than a face radiant with natural beauty and color, the two-faced Zasius is constructed out of mud-colored plucked poultry and fecund fish, clearly illustrating Arcimboldo's disdain. 

6. ARCIMBOLDO TOOK NATURE SERIOUSLY. 

Arcimboldo’s works may be playful, but he and his contemporaries were fascinated by the beauty and grotesqueness that could be found in the natural world. His dedicated depiction of flora and fauna down to the finest details [PDFis a major part of why the composite heads are still marveled over centuries later. 

7. ONE OF HIS SERIES PAID TRIBUTE TO THE ELEMENTS. 

Four Elements offered surreal portraits made up of elegant animals and man made luxury. Air soars with a flock of birds, including an owl, a rooster, a parrot, and a peacock. Water contains a string of pearls and a coral crown laced around a swimming collection of fish, sharks, squids, sea turtles, and crustaceans. Earth is made of mammals, like elephants, deer, predatory cats, a wild boar, rabbit, and lamb. Lastly, Fire shimmers with sparks, flames, candles, lamps, and glistening gold and guns.  

8. THE HABSBURGS LOVED HIS WHIMSICAL STYLE. 

Though royal portraits of the time were intended to idealize their subjects, the Habsburgs adored Arcimboldo's inventive renderings. Their court was known for welcoming intellectuals and encouraging avant-garde art. Arcimboldo happily worked for the family for more than 25 years and would continue to accept commissions even after moving back to his homeland in Milan.

9. THE PAINTINGS ARE RICH WITH ALLUSIONS AND VISUAL PUNS. 

Summer has an ear of corn for an ear. Winter includes a cloak with a monogrammed M, referring to Emperor Maximilian, who owned a similar garment. Similarly, Fire includes fire strikers, a symbol of the Habsburg family, and Earth's lion skin cloak harkens to Hercules, whom the royal clan liked to claim as an ancestor. 

10. HIS WORK INSPIRED A ROYAL COSTUME PARTY. 

In 1571, Maximilian requested Arcimboldo arrange a festival in which the royals and their fancy friends might masquerade as the elements and the seasons. It's likely the painter's costuming ambitions were given a fantastic outlet at the festivities, where life reflected art (which reflected life): Maximilian attended as Arcimboldo's Winter. 

11. HE GOT EVEN WACKIER WITH “REVERSIBLES.” 

Public Domain

These paintings took playfulness to a new level by flipping them literally on their heads. At first glance, these pieces look like a still life, a bowl of vegetables for instance. But linger on their legumes and you'll see a face, upside down, with a bowl as a hat.  

12. THESE FLIPS TOOK SOME TRIAL AND ERROR. 

Art historians believed that Arcimboldo painted these pieces as still life, right side up. Then he would turn them to see their faces and adjust accordingly. X-rays of the canvases reveal that this required some shifting of positions and repainting of fruit to get everything just right. 

13. DESPITE THE ROYAL ACCLAIM, HIS FAME FADED. 

For decades, Arcimboldo was well known and admired among the elite. Yet following his death in 1593, these incredible paintings were largely forgotten for centuries. 

14. SURREALISTS HELPED RESTORE HIS STATURE. 

Artists like Salvador Dali have cited the groundbreaking painter's composite heads as a major source of inspiration. But it was Museum of Modern Art director Alfred H. Barr's inclusion of his works in the 1930s exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism that re-introduced the world to Arcimboldo's originality and influence [PDF]. Retroactively, art historians dubbed the Renaissance Mannerist the grandfather of Surrealism.   

15. TODAY HE IS BELOVED AROUND THE WORLD. 

Arcimboldo’s works once again enjoy widespread acclaim. Vertumnus is on display in Sweden's Skokloster Castle along with The Librarian (although testing in 2011 [PDF] revealed that The Librarian might be a later copy). Spring belongs to Madrid's Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, while the Louvre in Paris displays Autumn and Winter. Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna boasts Summer, Fire and Water. Italy's Museo Civico holds The Vegetable Bowl (also known as The Gardener), and Four Seasons in One Head calls the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. home.

Last Surviving Person of Interest in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist to Be Released From Prison

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Almost exactly 29 years ago, two men disguised as police officers weaseled their way into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and started removing prized artworks from the wall. They made off with 13 famous paintings and sculptures, representing a value of more than $500 million. It remains the largest property theft in U.S. history, but no one has ever been charged in connection with the heist.

Now, as Smithsonian reports, the last living person who may have first-hand knowledge about the heist will be released from prison this Sunday after serving 54 months for an unrelated crime. Robert (Bobby) Gentile, an 82-year-old mobster who was jailed for selling a gun to a known murderer, has been questioned by authorities in the past. In 2010, the wife of the late mobster Robert (Bobby) Guarente told investigators she had seen her husband give several of the artworks in question to Gentile—a good friend of Guarente’s—eight years prior.

A 2012 raid of Gentile’s home also revealed a list of black market prices for the stolen items. Previous testimony from other mob associates—coupled with the fact that Gentile had failed a polygraph test when he was questioned about the art heist—suggest Gentile might know more about the crime than he has let on. For his part, though, Gentile says he is innocent and knows nothing about the art or the heist.

The FBI announced in 2013 that it knew who was responsible for the museum heist, but would not reveal their names because they were dead. Still, the whereabouts of the artworks—including prized paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, Vermeer, and Degas—remain unknown. The museum is offering a $10 million reward to anyone who can provide information leading to “the recovery of all 13 works in good condition," according to the museum's website. A separate $100,000 reward will be provided for the return of an eagle finial that was used by Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

[h/t Smithsonian]

9 Colors Named After People

Alice Roosevelt—for whom Alice Blue is named—in 1902
Alice Roosevelt—for whom Alice Blue is named—in 1902
Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress/Wikimedia // Public Domain

Throughout history, a variety of famous people have lent their names to shades of brilliant blue, shocking purple, grassy green, muddy brown, and other hues. While many of these figures are artists who were known for using or developing these hues, other color eponyms come from the scientists who invented them or those who loved to wear them. Consider this list the place where the history books meet the artist’s palette.

1. Alice Blue

A pale azure blue named for Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who was known for wearing gowns of the color and thus sparking a trend for it. (She was also known for smoking in public and other forms of mischief-making, leading her father to declare: “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”) Her ice-blue dresses inspired the song "Alice Blue Gown" by Joseph McCarthy and Harry Tierney, which premiered in the 1919 Broadway musical Irene. ("I once had a gown that was almost new / Oh, the daintiest thing, it was sweet Alice Blue / With little forget-me-nots placed here and there / When I had it on, I walked on air.")

2. Yves Klein Blue

Visitors look at 'Monochrome Blue, without title' (1960) by French artist Yves Klein
Visitors look at Monochrome Blue, without title (1960) by French artist Yves Klein
THOMAS LOHNES/AFP/Getty Images

The artist Yves Klein was interested in art as transcendence, and he’s perhaps best known for painting monochromes in a brilliant ultramarine meant to suggest the infinity of sea and sky. (As Klein once explained, "Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions.") In 1960, he registered a formula for the color—known as IKB, or International Klein Blue—with the French government; the formula relied on ultramarine pigment mixed with a synthetic resin that wouldn't dilute the color.

During his “blue period,” Klein exhibited only blue paintings and objects, releasing a thousand and one blue balloons into the sky in Paris to celebrate one show, and serving gin, Cointreau, and blue-dye cocktails at another. Don’t copy that last idea, mixologists: everyone who drank them peed blue for days.

3. Titian Red

Visitors look at a painting by Renaissance master Titian in Rome
Visitors look at a painting by Renaissance master Titian in Rome
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

A person with red hair is sometimes said to be a Titian, after the great 16th century Venetian painter who was notably fond of painting redheads. (Examples of such paintings include Bacchus and Ariadne and Noli me Tangere, now in London's National Gallery.) In the 1960s, redheaded Barbie dolls were officially known as “Titians.” More loosely, the term has come to mean any orange-red color, although people seem to love to debate exactly what shades count.

4. Scheele's Green

Svenska Familj-Journalen, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Arsenic-based green pigments were all the rage in the 19th century, coloring everything from hosiery to hats to children’s toys. The first such pigment on the scene was Scheele’s Green, discovered by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775. The vibrant yellow-green hue caught on, especially after it was discovered that arsenic also produced a variety of other greens, from deep emerald to pale peridot. Although Scheele and others knew how toxic these pigments were, that didn't stop the colors from being used for clothing, candles, papers, playing cards, book-bindings, and sometimes even food. In perhaps the most famous example of its use, arsenic green wallpaper graced Napoleon’s last bathroom while he suffered through his exile on St. Helena, and some think the fumes caused by his long baths may have been what killed him.

5. Isabelline

José Reynaldo da Fonseca, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

If true, this color's origin story has to be the most off-putting in history. Once used to describe the pale champagne color of certain horse coats and bird feathers, the term Isabella-colored or isabelline is said (by no less than Isaac D'Israeli's 1791 Curiosities of Literature) to come from Isabel of Austria, the devoted daughter of Philip II of Spain.

Supposedly, when Spain laid siege to the city of Ostend in 1601, Isabella vowed not to change her undergarments until the city was taken. She expected a speedy victory, but much to her dismay (and presumably that of everyone around her), the fighting continued for three years before Spain won.

The Oxford English Dictionary dismisses this origin story, noting that Isabella as a color is first noted in 1600, a year before the siege began. But linguist Michael Quinion notes that accounts in French, German, Spanish and Italian (where isabelline has a similar color meaning) refer to the earlier Queen Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) and the siege of Granada—which means the story might just be true, even if it's about a different Isabella and a different set of 7-month-old dirty underwear.

6. Fuchsia

Heinrich Füllmaurer, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Here's a more pleasant etymology: The vivid red-purple of fuchsia, the color, comes from fuchsia, the flower, which is in turn named for 16th-century German botanist Leonhart Fuchs. (His last name, by the way, comes from the German word for "fox.") And if you think fuchsia and magenta are the same color, you're closer than you might think: Magenta was originally an aniline dye named fuchsine, named after the fuchsia flower. The name was changed in 1859, the year it was patented, in honor of the French victory at the Battle of Magenta. That apparently helped the dye become a stunning success.

7. Vandyke Brown

Anthony van Dyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep, warm, transparent brown was made with a high concentration of organic matter (basically: actual dirt), and was popular with the Old Masters. It was named for the innovative Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, who often used the color in his paintings, and who also lent his name to an early photographic printing process—which also produced a brown color, but did not actually involve dirt.

8. Perkin's Mauve

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like so many scientific discoveries, the invention of synthetic dyes happened by accident. In 1856, chemistry student William Henry Perkin, then only 18, was trying to find a new way to make quinine (a popular treatment for malaria, and the ingredient that still gives tonic water its slightly bitter taste). The experiment didn't quite work as planned, but Perkin noticed some purple sludge left over in his flask after rinsing it with alcohol, and realized its potential.

His instincts were good: After Perkin patented his creation and began mass-producing it, the color swept England, becoming so popular that the magazine Punch condemned an outbreak of “the mauve measles.” The color was originally called aniline purple by Perkin, as well as Perkin's purple or Perkin’s violet. The mauve part of “Perkin’s mauve” came a few years later thanks to the French, who named it after their word for the mallow flower.

9. Hooker's Green

Thomas Herbert Maguire, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The warm, grassy "Hooker's Green" is named for botanical illustrator William Hooker (1779–1832), who created a special pigment just to convey the exact green of leaves.

Bonus: Mummy Brown

A close-up of an Egyptian mummy head
A close-up of an Egyptian mummy head
iStock.com/izanbar

OK, it’s not a color named after one person, but a color named after many people—many dead people. First made in the 16th and 17th centuries, but a special favorite of the 19th century painters, this rich brown pigment was created by mixing both human and feline mummy crumbles with white pitch and myrrh. (Although we tend to think of them as protected antiquities today, people in centuries past often considered mummies just another natural resource.)

In part because of its curious components, the pigment wasn’t the most stable in the world, and it fell out of favor once its origin story became better known. According to one biography, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones gave his tube of Mummy Brown a funeral in his garden when he discovered where it came from. The pigment was sold into the 20th century, although if you see the name “mummy brown” used today, rest assured it contains no actual corpses. Probably.

A version of this list first ran in 2016.

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