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Framing Arcimboldo*

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was one of the painters who most embodied the spirit of Mannerism. His art is analogous to architecture in the hands of Michelangelo, one of the earliest exponents of Mannerism: a playful and anarchic take on the classical, which deforms and exaggerates various elements, remaking them in imaginative and inventive ways.

Detail of Flora meretrix - Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Detail of Flora meretrix, ca. 1590
Private collection

This group of disparate works – architectural, carved, metalwork, graphic – from the 1550s and 1560s illustrates the stylistic nexus within which Arcimboldo was working, and indicates how his portraits might originally have been framed. One further important medium from this period which may have influenced the latter question is the technique of pietre dure. This skill was rediscovered during the Renaissance, when inlaid Roman work and mosaics were at first copied and then remade in the taste of contemporary painting.

The materials used also diverged from the variegated earth-coloured marbles of classical Roman and Renaissance inlaid work. Pietre dure during the second half of the sixteenth century and the early seventeenth century imitated the Mannerist use of painting pigments by employing harmonies of intensely coloured semi-precious stones, such as agate, amethyst, lapis lazuli, malachite and rock crystal; sheets of transparent alabaster were even laid over prints or drawings to provide a further enrichment. The hugely enlarged palette of tints and tones enabled by this expanded range of stones moved the craft still further away from the abstract patterns of antique pietre dure, so that trompe-l’oeil depictions of flowers, fruit and bands of jewellery were regularly set into the tops of tables or wall panels.

These intricate and colourful works of art spawned their own genres of picture frame, based partly on the decorative pietre dure borders of furniture and panelling, partly on integral architectural altarpieces made of differently coloured marbles, and partly on inlaid cabinets, which combined painted panels framed in inlays and columns of semi-precious stones. These various influences produced two types of frame: miniature aedicules of inlaid wood, or polychrome faux marble; and cassetta frames, their friezes inlaid with shaped panels and cartouches of stone. Both were fashionable from the mid-sixteenth century until well into the seventeenth, becoming ever more intricate and jewel-like.

While Arcimboldo’s surreal portraits would not have been framed in this way, they may possibly have been set in the cassetta versions of these inlaid stone and faux stone frames.

The art historian Federico Zeri, who is credited with designing the pair of distinctive pietre dure frames on the present portraits by Arcimboldo. In the face of these disparate solutions to the problem of framing Arcimboldo, Zeri has thought laterally and produced a very individual design, based on the pietre dure frames of a Kunstkammer, in which the colour harmony of the stones echoes those of each respective painting. With their grey "ebonised" mouldings, the frames are wide enough to provide a definitive boundary around the pictures; their colouring is light and playful, in the spirit of the flowers of which the portraits are composed; they emphasise the supremely decorative aspect of the artist’s work; and they have enough historical authenticity to stand as a very acceptable answer to an otherwise insoluble problem.

* Extract from the essay by Lynn Roberts and Paul Mitchell published in the catalogue of this exhibition