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Arcimboldo and Flora*

Detail of Flora - Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Detail of Flora, 1589
Private collection

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526–1593) is one of the most surprising cases of changing fortunes in the world of art. Esteemed and ennobled by emperors and praised by renowned writers on art of the day, after his death he was the subject of a harsh damnatio memoriae that lasted until the twentieth century, at which point he suddenly reappeared, becoming one of the few visual artists prior to the Impressionists capable of connecting with the modern sensibility.


Arcimboldo was born in Milan in 1526 into a family of painters. Like his father, Arcimboldo worked primarily for the Opera del Duomo, Florence, where he is documented between 1549 and 1558 as a designer of cartoons for stained glass and tapestries. He also painted frescoes in the cathedral of nearby Monza. In 1562 his life changed radically when he was invited to the imperial court by the future Maximilian II. Arcimboldo's principal activity during his early years of royal service was portraiture. In the 1570s he was also employed to design the numerous spectacles (tournaments, plays, weddings) that were held at court. This dual employment as portraitist and designer of temporary events has been compared to Leonardo's output for the Sforza court in Milan. Arcimboldo remained at the imperial court until 1587, first in Vienna then in Prague. In 1587 he left the court, garlanded with honours, and returned to Milan where he died in 1593, aged sixty-six.


A multi-faceted artist, Arcimboldo's place in history rests on one aspect of his output, which is as unique as is it indelibly linked with his name: his so-called teste composte (composite heads). The term refers to a composition arising from the combination of different, clearly definable elements to form a head and the upper part of a bust. While these heads have often been described as caprices resulting from the artist's whimsical and fertile imagination, their creation was in fact a complex issue bound by specific rules.


The origins of the teste composte have been the subject of discussion by all those who have studied the artist. Both DaCosta Kauffman and Porzio acknowledge the influence of Leonardo in two aspects: as the creator of the teste grotesche e di carattere (grotesque heads and heads of characters) and for his scientific approach to nature.


Continuing with the two paintings that comprise this exhibition, Flora was celebrated from the moment of its creation as one of Arcimboldo's masterpieces. Together with Vertumnus, it was the work that most contributed to disseminating his skills. The first was Flora, executed in 1589 and presented to Rudolf on New Year's Day in 1590, a date on which the ruler traditionally received presents. The choice of this painting as a gift for the emperor can be explained by Rudolf's interest in botany and gardening, an enthusiasm that Arcimboldo would again reflect two years later with Vertumnus, which formed a pair with Flora.


Flora is an outstanding example of Arcimboldo's mastery in the depiction of nature, as well as of his enormous curiosity, given the large variety of flowers represented. The range of flowers depicted by Arcimboldo had consequences that were not just scientific but also artistic, as they resulted in a remarkably subtle and varied chromatic palette that also relates to the origins of the myth of Flora. In his Fastos (V), Ovid tells of the melancholy, monochromatic nature of the world at its outset, enlivened only by the green of the leaves and the grass, until Zephyrus, the wind god, made Chloris pregnant. After her transformation into Flora she brought all the colours of the flowers into the world.


Who is Flora's companion? Both images are created from an assembly of a wide range of flowers but, despite their evident similarity, there are differences between them. The most obvious is that in the second painting the female figure reveals a bare breast, a detail that has led scholars to hesitate when also identifying her as Flora, explaining why Granberg cautiously called her a "Jeune dame" and Zeri used the ambiguous Ritratto di donna (Portrait of a woman). Recently, however, Berra has identified her as Flora meretrix, in other words, a different Flora to the one in the other painting. 31 This is feasible as the Renaissance was aware of two distinct classical traditions for this figure: the mythological Flora, wife of Zephyrus, who was the personification of spring and synonymous with marital harmony and natural fecundity according to the Ovidian tradition; and the other one, Flora meretrix, a legendary Roman prostitute who on her death left her fortune for the celebration of the festivals in Rome known as the Floralie, which involved provocative sexual games.


This is the only work by Arcimboldo that conveys sensuality in addition to the other aspects normally transmitted by his composite heads, such as surprise, paradox or technical virtuosity. The contrast with Flora is obvious and is not just due to the bare breast. This figure's eyelids are lighter, resulting in large eyes that look directly at the viewer, while the artist has achieved the miracle of imbuing the white petals that form the bare skin with sensuality through his use of a narrower colour range and more diffused forms.


With his composite heads Arcimboldo not only found his own, unusual direction in the competitive art world of the second half of the sixteenth century (his contemporary Morigi described him as a pittore raro (rare painter) in 1592), but also devised a type of painting that is as easily recognisable as it is inseparable from his name. Furthermore, due to its ingeniousness and light-heartedness, this was a type of painting that probably attracted the contemporary public in a way not always achieved by the creations of the great geniuses.



* Extract from the essay by Miguel Falomir published in the catalogue of this exhibition