A Face of Fruit Composed

A short story of a very famous painting

The Emperor (c. 1600) by Hans von AachenSkokloster Castle

The Artist and the Subject

The painting Vertumnus was created by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526/27–1593) as a gift to his former employer, Emperor Rudolf II (1576–1612). It was delivered to the Emperor with an explanatory poem written by Arcimboldo’s friend Gregorio Comanini. It is not known if Rudolf II appreciated the gift or where he kept the painting during his life. Apparently, there is a record of it in the imperial collection in Prague in 1621. 

The Field Marshal Königsmarck (1651) by Matthaeus MerianSkokloster Castle

The Subsequent Events

In 1648, some twenty years later, Swedish forces under command of Count Hans Christoph von Königsmarck (1600-1663) attacked Prague. The vast amount of precious objects and works of art that were shipped to Sweden after the successful capture of the “Small Side” of Prague was duly noted by Königsmarck. In that inventory we find lot 351: a face of fruit.

Christina of Sweden (1661) by Abraham WuchtersSkokloster Castle

Not Good Enough?

Queen Kristina’s collection was exquisite and plentiful, filled with the finest works of art she could find. Arcimboldo’s paintings, on the other hand, were bizarre and – most importantly – made by an unknown artist. Arcimboldo’s flame of fame had withered quickly after his death. It is therefore likely that lesser paintings, as it were, were distributed to her subordinates as gracious gifts.

Per Brahe the Younger (c. 1650) by David BeckSkokloster Castle

The Rise to Fame

“A face of fruit composed” appears in the probate after Per Brahe the younger (1602–1680). It hung at Bogesund, one of Count Brahe’s many estates. Sometime between 1828 and 1845 the painting was transferred to Skokloster by Magnus Brahe (1790–1844). The reason might have been to assemble paintings for a picture gallery on the second floor. The painting was kept in the library, however. In the late 19th Century Vertumnus was considered degenerated and of poor quality by the art historian Olof Granberg, who had the task of composing a written guide to Skokloster.

It all changed through the exhibition “the Arcimboldo Effect” at Palazzo Grassi in Venice 1987. 

Rudolf II of Habsburg as Vertumnus (1590) by Giuseppe ArcimboldoSkokloster Castle

It is a famous face today. But what did Arcimboldo want to convey with the image? The poem Comanini wrote gives us some clues. "There is a certain ugliness more beautiful than any beauty", he states.

“Ears of corn, spiky, full of Junius’ pollen, golden, ripened by the sun...which in winter serves the shepherd in the mountains as a sweet delicious meal for his wife and for his children.”

“Grapes are hanging from my temples, softly contoured, warmly painted…reaped and harvested in Lyaeus’ (Dionysus’) golden month.”

“The melon will refresh us, will revive our dried-up throats, with its sweetness and its moisture.”

“Behold the apple and the peach. See how my two cheeks are formed, round and full of life.”

“Also have a good look at my eyes, cherry-coloured one and mulberry the other…youthful, joyful vigour.”

“Look at those two hazelnuts, with their green and empty skins...above my lip. Though useless otherwise, they render service as two sides of a nicely trimmed moustache. There’s a chestnut’s spiky case clinging to my chin and making it a perfect miracle of adornment, fitting for a man.”

“Notice of this fig which ripened, the burst open and now dangles from my ear, so that you well mistake me for a little Frenchman.”

“Finally behold this sash…draped around my chest and my right shoulder, thus you’ll surely value and appreciate as a loyal vassal me...holding forth, triumphantly, my sovereign’s colours and his coat of arms.”

Ripened Fruit

Today Arcimboldo
is one of the fundaments of European art history. The image Vertumnus – for hundreds
of years dismissed as insignificant – is treasured as the “poster-boy” of
Skokloster. It is visible on a multitude of merchandise all over the world and (mis)used
a million times over.  One could agree with Comanini that "there's a certain ugliness more beautiful than any beauty."

Credits: Story

Text and editing: G. Sandell, National Historical Museums, Sweden.

1987. The Arcimboldo Effect; Transformations of the Face from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century. Bompiani: Milan

Granberg, Olof. 1896. Drottning Kristinas tafvelgalleri på Stockholms slott och i Rom, dess uppkomst och dess öden ända till våra dagar. Ivar Haeggströms boktryckeri: Stockholm.

Makes, Frantisek. 1988. Enzymatic Consolidation of the Portrait of Rudolf II as Vertumnus. Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis: Gothenburg.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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