How Giuseppe Arcimboldo Made the Familiar Bizarre

Featured image: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “The Gardener” (1587–90), oil on wood, 14 x 9 2/5 inches; Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Cremona, Italy (via Wikimedia Commons)

It was in Prague, that red-tile-roofed city of dreaming gothic spires, where the esoteric-minded monarch Rudolf II, the 16th-century ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, gathered thinkers and artifacts from throughout his domain, which covered Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and Moravia. It was Rudolf who English poet Elizabeth Jane Weston celebrated when she intoned in an undated valedictory ode: “May Caesar’s empire, which establishes rewards for the Muses,/ flourish; and may Caesar’s court long thrive.” For though Rudolf was largely ineffectual in matters of statecraft, he assembled a court of scientists, philosophers, and alchemists who were responsible for Prague’s enduring occult reputation.

Unconcerned with the drudgery of government, the Habsburg king was primarily interested in deciphering the occluded structures of our reality. Starting in 1587, he constructed a northern wing on his castle to exhibit his massive Kunstkammer, or “Wonder Cabinet.” Within its 37 cabinets, the emperor collected gargantuan cut gems and curious fossils, astrolabes of gold and silver, and intricate time-keeping contraptions. Most enigmatic, however, was a portrait of Rudolf by one of his court painters, the Milanese Mannerist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

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