Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 11, 2012
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 336 pp.; 39 color ills.; 43 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780226426860)
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Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s composite paintings are surely among the most entertaining images produced in Europe during the sixteenth century. Twenty-first century viewers respond to them immediately with delight and curiosity, and usually also remark on how much they are like Surrealist paintings. The same sorts of responses are found in art-historical scholarship. Renaissance studies has long neglected Arcimboldo altogether, with the result that his paintings remained to be effectively studied within their own context. In Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann seeks to rectify this lacuna in art-historical scholarship and to elucidate the deeper meaning, function, and legacy of these images.

In the first chapter, entitled “Arcimboldo’s Lombard Origins,” Kaufmann examines the sources for Arcimboldo’s composite inventions in Lombardy and surveys his life and work before the painter moved to Central Europe for a career at court. Kaufmann begins by discussing Arcimboldo’s stained glass production in his father Biagio’s shop, his role in the design of the stained glass for the Cathedral of Milan, his frescoes in the cathedral of Monza, and his tapestry designs for Como. The start of Arcimboldo’s career would seem to have little to do with his later work and success in the service of the Hapsburgs, but Kaufmann demonstrates that his development in Milan was critical. The importance of Leonardo’s work as a model for emulation for artists had been sustained with vigor in Milan and, as such, Leonardo’s interest in naturalia, caricature, and physiognomy, as well as his concept of the universal painter, were critical to Arcimboldo’s formation. In addition, Arcimboldo’s exposure to ancient writings on art and artists along with current artistic theory shaped the form and meaning with which Arcimboldo would imbue his work, as well as the social and artistic aspirations he would pursue.

In 1562, Arcimboldo left Milan to enter the service of Maximilian II Habsburg in Vienna. In the second chapter, Kaufmann traces his career at court and discusses how Arcimboldo, like most Renaissance artists, performed a myriad of tasks. He was hired as a “conterfetter” and participated in the preparations for mascherate and commedia dell’arte performances. It was only after his arrival at court, Kaufmann argues, that Arcimboldo began making his composites, which brought him fame throughout Europe. His artistic skill was richly rewarded with a salary, the legitimization of his natural son, noble titles, and status as a Count Palatine of the Lateran (still an unusual honor for a painter). He remained in the service of the court even after his return to Milan in 1587 and until his death there in 1593.

Arcimboldo realized his social position in part because of his intellectual pursuits. In chapter 3, “Learning, Poetry, and Art,” Kaufmann explores the painter’s knowledge of humanism, poetry, and natural philosophy and connects it to the impetus and interpretation of Arcimboldo’s composites. He first considers Arcimboldo’s contact with learned men at court, especially Wolfgang Lazius, Maximilian II’s physician, whom the painter could have met between 1562/3 and 1565, which was, Kaufmann points out, an important period for Arcimboldo’s composites. He then examines his associations with Jacopo Strada and Giovanni Battista Fonteo, and with the Milanese literati such as Bartolomeo Taegio, Giovanni Filippo Gherardini, and Gregorio Comanini. Kaufmann reviews the poetry written in Arcimboldo’s honor by Milanese poets Bernardino Baldini, Sigismondo Foliani, Gherardo Borgogni, G. A. da Milano, and others, and the sonnets in Gian Paolo Lomazzo’s Rabisch. While the reader could have profited from a more elaborated discussion of Milanese intellectual life in this period (particularly concerning the members of the literati and Arcimboldo’s associations with them), Kaufmann provides an important analysis of the poetry and convincingly argues that G. A. da Milano was, in fact, Arcimboldo.

Taking, then, the newly attributed poem by Arcimboldo on the Roman god Vertumnus, Kaufmann turns, in chapter 4, to an analysis of the painter-poet’s intended interpretations of the “serious jokes” in his composites. In the poem, Arcimboldo’s antiquarianism is fully intertwined with his abilities as a poet and painter. As Kaufmann illustrates, these sorts of “ridiculous paintings” were inspired by revered ancient writers such as Cicero, Quintilian, Aristotle, and Pliny, as well as by modern writers like Erasmus. Concurrently, they are imbued with humor as a means to communicate serious social and political messages. Moreover, they are intended as expressions of the artist’s poetic furor and artistic ingegno.

In chapter 5, “Natural Philosophy, Natural History, and Nature Painting,” Kaufmann examines Arcimboldo’s studies of nature, his familiarity with Pliny’s Natural History, physiognomy, and phytognomy. Kaufmann masterfully weaves together Arcimboldo’s nature studies, some of which are identified for the first time here, and unpublished and published correspondence, particularly between Ulisse Aldovrandi and Franciscus De Paduanis, to establish that Arcimboldo was widely regarded in his own day as an expert in depiction of naturalia and that the artist was “participating directly in the dissemination of knowledge about natural history” (124). After detailed stylistic and technical analyses of drawings in Bologna, Vienna, and in Dresden, Kaufmann establishes that Arcimboldo’s depictions of naturalia begin at the start of his career at court, precisely when he began the Seasons (1563) and Elements (1566) series. Kaufmann concludes that Arcimboldo used his nature studies as visual source material for his paintings, but they were also put to other use, as evidenced by their presence in contemporaneous collections (such as the Aldovrandi, Saxon, and Imperial collections).

Chapter 6, “Nature Studies,” continues the discussion of Arcimboldo’s nature studies by comparing them to botanical illustration conventions and suggesting their influence on other artists. Kaufmann also offers an analysis of the subject matter of Arcimboldo’s drawings in terms of exotica and the Imperial Kunstkammer. It is here that Kaufmann reconsiders the title “conterfetter,” the role Arcimboldo officially held at court, and suggests that the term may have included more than just portraits, but was more broadly intended as the maker of images “after” or “from the life.” As such, the “conterfetter” was responsible for images of a wide range of specimens (human and otherwise). Arcimboldo melds together human and nature as the ultimate “conterfetter” in his composite portraits, such as his Vertumnus/Rudolf II (1590).

Kaufmann’s focus in chapter 7, “Arcimboldo and the Origins of Still Life,” is the invertible composite portrait, which, when viewed from one direction, becomes a still life. The categorization of these images as still lifes and the recognition of their place in the history of the genre has, in Kaufmann’s view, long been discounted. Arcimboldo made at least four of these types of paintings while at court. Kaufmann argues that these images were seminal in linking northern and southern European traditions, and that the lineage of the history of the genre in Italy should be understood as Leonardo-Arcimboldo-Caravaggio. He further propounds that Arcimboldo’s work is the important link between the development of nature study into independent still life, and that other artists employed Arcimboldo’s studies for their own still lifes. At times Kaufmann seems to edge toward overly championing the artist’s role—for example, when he suggests that Arcimboldo’s interest in naturalia was the catalyst for Federico Borromeo’s—but certainly one is fully convinced that Arcimboldo’s work should be considered more seriously in the development of autonomous still life painting.

In chapter 8, “Arcimboldo’s Paradoxical Paintings and the Origins of Still Life,” Kaufmann explores further implications of the invertible paintings, particularly in terms of the concepts of artistic ingegno, natural artifice, and imitation and competitive emulation. He also provides a discussion of the ancient origins of such paintings in Plutarch (and others) and the story of the artist Pauson and the galloping horse, as well as more modern influences such as Erasmianism.

In the conclusion, Kaufmann underscores Arcimboldo’s rightful place in the history of art, moving him away from such facile categorization as “proto-surrealist” or as a superficial example of the bizarre in mannerism. He establishes the artist’s role as a protagonist in the development of still life, and as a widely regarded expert in naturalia. The final section of the book includes three appendices: 1: Arcimboldo, the Facchini, and Popular Culture; 2: Arcimboldo and Meda at Monza; and 3: Concordance of Arcimboldo images from various sources.

Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting provides for the first time a brilliantly nuanced study of paintings that, until now, had been only superficially treated, despite (or because of) their visual charm and evident complexity. Kaufmann’s masterful analysis of these paintings, the inclusion of so many new drawings and documentary evidence, his skilled visual and textual analyses, and his important discussion of the contexts in which the painter worked easily make this book a fundamental source not only on Arcimboldo but also on early modern Milan and court culture, on the development of natural science, and on the rise of still-life painting in Europe.

Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Vermont

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