L’Ortolano - Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Oil on panel, 35.8 × 24.2 cm. Cremona, Museo Civico Ala Ponzone. The famous painting, known as the Ortolano, became part of
the collections of the Cremona Museum with the bequest of
the Marquis Giuseppe Sigismondo Ala Ponzone in 1842 and is
one of its main attractions.
The caprice composition, or rabisch, had already been codified
in the Lombardy mannerisms school by the Milanese
painter and treatise writer Giovan Paolo Lomazzo who, in his
Treatise on painting in 1584 cited Giuseppe Arcimboldo as a
specialist of the genre. Lomazzo was referring particularly to the
reversible heads: a kind of Ovidian metamorphosis which with
a rotation of 180° completely change the content and meaning
of the paintings.
In this case the bowl of vegetables is transformed into a hilarious
and playful portrait of the gardener, a kind of irreverent
Priapus charged with the fertility and regenerative forces of nature,
to which the ambiguous composition of an onion, a turnip
and a root seem to allude in evoking male sexuality. The
bowl-shaped container with the vegetables becomes, after rotation,
a kind of helmet; the luxuriant leaves beard and hair, two
mushrooms formed the fleshy lips, a walnut and hazelnut the
eyes, the onion and turnip the fleshy cheeks, and the prominent
root the nose/phallus, according to the analogy described
on the treatise on physiognomy by Giovan Battista Della Porta
(De humana physiognomonia, 1586) who observed that nasus
correspondet praeputio.
From ancient inventory we know that similar caprices were
also present in the Imperial collections: such as a vase of flowers,
described in the collection of Maximilian II, which when rotated
became a ridiculous face; or the portrait of Johann Ulrich
Zasius composed of writings, documents, letters, contracts and memorials. The inventory of the chamber of curiosities in the
castle of Prague mentioned paintings by Arcimboldo quite similar
to the Cremona Ortolano, such as one head composed of
vegetable’s and another of turnips, but their overly summary
description does not make it possible to identify them with the
example in question.
Contrary to what was held in the past, traces of writing on
the bowl should not be interpreted as the remains of a signature
but as a correction during painting of the leaves, which
originally hung over the edge of the bowl but would perhaps
have made its transformation into a cap less comprehensible.
So it seems plausible that the painter arrived gradually at the
concept of a reversible head making modifications during the
execution of the painting that are still today partly visible. As
concerns the dating of the Ortolano, the most recent criticism
feels the work could have been painted soon after his return to
Milan from the Hapsburg court in Prague (1587), and probably
slightly before the portrait of Rodolfo II as Vertumno in 1590.
The technical precision and painting technique seem in line
with the experimental naturalism of the well-known series of
the Elementi and Stagioni painted at the Cesarean Court of Rodolfo,
but not yet with the cold formal rigour that distinguishes
the phytomorphic portrait of the Emperor painted in that year.
Mario Marubbi
Curator Pinacoteca Ala Ponzone, Cremona


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