PRINT February 1987



IN HIS MAGISTERIAL ESSAYRetore e Mago” (Rhetorician and magician),1 dedicated to the secret of the 16th-century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s visual language, Roland Barthes argues that while a sequence of verbal discourse can be analyzed into wholes endowed with their own meanings (words), the “discourse” of a picture seems to have only one articulation: its components (lines and points), if abstracted from the combination in which they are set, have no meaning. However, Barthes continues, the elements of Arcimboldo’s figures do have meaning. Each constitutes a “lexicographic unity” taken from a dictionary of images—very clear images, not at all like children’s-book pictures (as Barthes mistakenly suggests), but, rather, close to the genre of scientific illustration. As Gregorio Comanini wrote of Arcimboldo’s work in 1591, “respect the fact that there is no fruit or flower not taken from nature and imitated with the greatest possible care.”2 Arcimboldo had direct experience with the elements—fruit, vegetables, animals—that compose his figures; he could study them in the great collections of the Holy Roman emperor, in whose court he served. In similar terms, Gian Paolo Lomazzo, writing in 1550, praised the “naturalistic” mastery of Arcimboldo’s extraordinary figures, remarking that his painting represents “to our eyes all the forms of the things that fill and enrich this world, it is like another nature, or at least like an imitator of the world with reason, it emulates the world, and it comes in all its parts to let us know, in the most beautiful and delightful way, the diversity of the world’s forms.”3 Arcimboldo imitates “with reason,” and so inspires “delight,” because his pictorial elements, all such exact copies, have no value except as metaphor. They are somehow thrown beyond themselves,4 more often radically than not; one can find no similarity between a hare and the swell of a nose, between a wolf’s jaws and a man’s eye. Only occasionally does this game of metaphors turn to direct analogy; the dominant factor, the rash mania, to which we should return is the artist’s compositional invention, a bridge cast out toward no apparent shore.

But of what does the game’s “message” consist? What does its “code” both conceal and reveal? Does the game play itself out in the “marvelous,” the trick of making a painting into a discursive sequence with a structure like that of language? Above all, to what extent do the perfectly distinct animals, flowers, and so on that compose Arcimboldo’s figures signify in themselves? The painter’s best works evoke the idea of a tangle, a disorganized interweaving. What is striking about them is the force, the measured power, of the complexio, which constitutes the problem of this representation. How can what is perfectly distinct end up equally perfectly indissoluble? And how can forms apparently so contrary to each other appear and define themselves through a rhythm that molds them inextricably into a composition? These problems almost disappear in Arcimboldo’s various visual discourses on “metamorphical dizziness,” for the works are so clearly composed. The labyrinth they constitute has a finished quality; a Boundary embraces its forms, and, at the same time, a Nomos or Law orders its complex internal relationships. This Nomos conforms to a specifically Pythagorean musical theory, a theory central to the writings of Lomazzo and Comanini. In fact, Arcimboldo’s “monstrous” figures are devised as “musical concerts”— they are attuned, that is, to harmonic relationships. Not only are there no violent exaggerations of the elements of these compositions, but their chromatic tonalities are in consonance (or are intended to be). They accord with a precise system of correspondences between sounds (or, better, musical intervals) and colors. Arcimboldo, Comanini wrote, “found the tones and the semitones and the diatessaron and the diapente and the diapason and all the other musical consonances within colors, with that very art with which Pythagoras invented the same harmonic proportions.”5 Rather than the abstract exaltation of any single element, then, it is the harmonic system to which the figure conforms that is the goal of the work—the goal of any art that is pursued. The more precision and individuality the single element reveals, the more powerfully it is subsumed into the whole, and shows itself as a part of the whole—in a word, signifies the whole. Every relationship, every particular complexio among the various elements, must be perfect, for the figure as a whole must stand in perfect finite agreement.

Arcimboldo’s invention is astonishing in the systematicness with which it pursues such ideas wherever they lead, and in its systematic exclusion of anomalies from its discourse. The word “harmony” comes from the Greek armottein, and the root is the same as that of the Latin ars, or “art”; it means “to link,” to join parts that reciprocally come together. Birds don’t congregate with fish in Arcimboldo’s work, nor the kingdom of fire with that of water, nor the phlegmatic colors of winter with the regenerative ones of spring. In the 16th century certain metamorphoses did take place between one realm and another, dissonant confusions of the orders of creation (in the work of Hieronymus Bosch, for example), but there is no trace of this in Arcimboldo’s paintings. Each realm finds its own harmonious equilibrium, rings of its own pure accord. No disturbing or monstrous apparitions appear, no unsettling or fantastical creatures—even the ocean, long the sacred abode of the most awful nightmares, is “scientifically” described. Once again we are poles apart from the infernal grilli, the hybrid human-and-animal creatures, of a Bosch or a Bruegel. For Arcimboldo, the disquieting, the Unheimliches, lies in representing not so much the extraordinary or the unprecedented as the extraordinariness, the “miraculousness,” of the ordinary, of what commonly is, or can be, the object of direct, precise experience. The disquieting lies in hallucinating the experience that normally ties us to things as they are, as they appear.

Magia naturalis. This is a magic, then, in which elements that lend themselves to commonplace observation one by one, with cold, discordant differences between them, find harmony and establish their realm. Yet it is a magic that deals with things as they actually exist—it produces nothing outside the natural system of creation, nothing “dia-bolical” in relation to it. Far from violating the Nomos, the magician expresses it, makes it manifest. His art could be described as a maieutic system for the harmony that exists in the different orders of the world, and in the world as a whole. His art is a discovery, an illumination of that harmony, and as such it dazzles vision, for the eye, accustomed to seeing things in arhythmic sequences, is unsettled by the Rhythmòs that is the basis of the work and is evident in it. Yet this Rhythmòs does not seem imposed on nature as something tyrannical and extraneous. Rather, it seems a law inherent in nature’s very being. The Hermetic and the alchemic traditions of the Renaissance, then, underlie the structure of Arcimboldo’s language (with its dual articulation), and inspire it with systematic consequence.

A Boundary embraces the composition of an Arcimboldo figure. It doesn’t appear at once—in fact, it’s the last thing to become clear. The last fruit of creation: nativitas perfecta. Only when one detaches oneself from the composition, looks at it from a distance, does it come together. All the faces compose a face, the Face. The Nomos, which orders the relationships among the elements, corresponds to the Boundary, which defines their harmony. All of creation blossoms in the human face; within this sign each of creation’s orders finds full maturity, manifests its true idea. Here, we might say, the different signs reveal their true meaning, harmonizing with each other as elements of the various features of man. Once again, the Boundary is not cruel or tyrannical—the faces of animals and things “respect” it without apparent hardship, without distortion. Nor do they resemble a dead list of names, a collection embalmed. The germ of the fish is natura viva; the cow regally stretched out on its side, supporting the Hunter crowned with stags, elk, and ibex, is the true symbol of external physis or nature. These animals seem at home in the human face; to countless flowers, the face seems a fertile humus.

It is an extraordinary illustration, a magical expression of the grand theme of dignitas hominis. For a good deal of Florentine Neoplatonic Hermeticism can be felt both in the Lombard culture surrounding Arcimboldo (in the work of Lomazzo and Comanini, for example) and, more pronouncedly, in the courts of Vienna and Prague, our artist’s milieu par excellence. (The phenomenon is amply discussed in various of the writings of Robert Klein, Erwin Panofsky, and Frances Yates.) Here, man is a prodigy, worthy of veneration and honor, for his character summarizes all creation. Arcimboldo literally reinvents the words of the Asclepius, which had been revived in the Oratio of Pico della Mirandola, “an epigraph worthy of all the ages,”6 written in 1486. The sign of man is bound to all others. “He is at the same time all things and everywhere” (Asclepius 6). He is free from the hierarchies of the various orders, not because he exists as an abstract world unto himself, outside these orders, but because he gives form and measure to them all. Arcimboldo’s adaptations of the various orders in his work is always an adaptation to man. It would be a diabolical inversion of harmony if the face of a flower, an animal, or a stone were made up of human faces. The alchemic transformation runs in a set, irreversible direction from the apparently chaotic multiplicity of natural forms to the true aurum or gold of the sages, which one attains intus, inside, sinking into oneself, returning radically to oneself—perfectly realizing, that is, one’s own humanity. The Ministers of the Dream lead Arcimboldo from images of “animals and birds and serpents and twigs and flowers and fruits and fish and grasses and leaves and ears of corn and straw and grapes” to images of men and of “the clothes of men,” of women and of “the ornaments of women.”7 His magic would be sinister without this layer of meaning, and what is marvelous would degenerate into being a fantastic oddity. From this point of view the Arcimboldian mania appears not so much “heroically-furiously” avant-garde and experimental (as many of the artist’s rediscoverers in this century would have it, in their rush to be topical) as rooted in the furrow of tradition.

Nevertheless, the harmonic picture described up to this point is far from satisfying. Too many “poisons” trouble the “aura.” Before we can begin to come to grips with an artist like Arcimboldo it seems necessary to reflect more deeply on the tradition of which he was certainly a part. The theme of the dignity of man—man, who in Arcimboldo’s work seems almost the humus and Boundary of creation—undergoes decisive metamorphoses as it passes from the Hermetic texts translated by Marsilio Ficino, to Ficino himself, to Pico, and on, bit by bit, through the complex scheme of Renaissance and Mannerist Hermeticism. It is impossible to outline here even a summary investigation of these changes; we can only attempt to discuss those aspects most relevant to Arcimboldo’s work. Traces of disillusionment with humanity enter inexorably beneath the almost triumphal hymn of origins. We linger not on the foelicitas with which man overflows, through the generosity of the Father, but rather on that other aspect: “nec certam sedem nec propriam faciem nec munus ullum peculiare tibi dedimus, o Adam” (Neither a certain place nor a proper face nor any particular character do we dedicate to you, oh Adam). The “eye” falls on this expression and bit by bit “abstracts” it from its context. No longer can one understand it as a “natural” formulation of the idea of foelicitas. That imperceptible displacement is enough to bring about a decisive shift: lit in a different way, the same thing becomes unrecognizable. In the Asclepius the mixed, compound nature of man is seen as a great good, because it is accessible to everything and thus it binds everything together, and binds it to itself. And from this theme of man as the medietas, the mean or the mediator, of all things and qualities, Ficino develops ideas of measure, proportion, and moderation through exhaustive political, ethical, and religious ramifications. Yet one has only to imagine that that mean cannot exist for its triumph to begin to rot away; no man belongs to it exclusively, has the power to say he is its exclusive property. No position is certain. Man has no face.

The potential of man consists precisely in his being a potential; nothing truly defines him if not his potential to exist. His character is based on no foundation, no present. It swarms with all the seeds, the embryos, of things. This is a tremendous freedom, and it makes everything indefinite, and condemns man to an infinite hunger: as Thomas Campanella would say, man’s appetite is infinite, not satisfiable with land, a city, a kingdom. Even a world can’t satisfy it, as Alexander showed when he grieved that he could not conquer the worlds of Democritus. From this is homo ille melancholicus born: not as a rupture or a reversal of the discourse on the dignity and the extraordinariness of the creature “man,” but almost as its deepening, its radical interiorization. That same extraordinariness is reflected now through man’s sorrowful side, his constitutional distress: we are not except in what we want to be, we are not except in what we “project” ourselves as being. We are not and do not live except in the image of what we might be and how we might live. And so the face of man, who is free to assume any shape, is unreal—it is a dream, never completely comprehensible or decipherable. Like dreams, it changes color, and its colors lose all naturalistic correspondence with “things-that-are,” with those things and animals that have been given a certain place and a certain face and a certain character. The late-Renaissance and Mannerist periods see man as “ek-static.” The vision seduces, enchants, and terrifies.

In this sense, our late-Renaissance magician revives the grand themes of Hermetic and Neoplatonic humanism—with a measure of anguish and transience, one might say, inherent from the beginning but now appearing as a basic and inescapable tone. The universe is still treated as an ordered system of correspondences in which the soul can “fabulieren”—can talk, as Paracelsus says—with the invisible entity of the astrum, the star. Everything carries within it the indelible sign of original unity; everything can still be recognized as an expression of that unity, a verbum or logos of God, and so included in it and destined for it eternally. The Plotinian symphony still resounds powerfully through the century in the writing of Ficino, in which every specific being, every logos, every dynamis, participates as a chorus. Without the idea of the universal symbolic nature of being, without the idea that everything is sympathès, that not a fragment of material in the cosmos is apsychon, absolutely lacking psiché—lacking the principle of life and movement—one cannot grasp the fundamental motives of the religious and scientific, artistic and philosophical culture that extends in an arc from the “rebirth” of Plotinus to Giordano Bruno. Yet the change of tone that this same vision presents is absolutely radical. In Ficino’s Liber de vita coelitus comparanda, which is an accurate and appropriate comment on chapters 3 and 4 of Plotinus’ fourth Ennead, the meaning of the symbol is finite—the entire universe appears perfectly complete and embraceable in a single apogee. The works of nature proceed in an orderly way, as in the works of a sage. Yet it is within this scholastic or Thomist (and Aristotelian) universe that there emerges the problem of that prodigy, that monstruum—man conceived of as being at the center of things. This centrality is in harmony with the idea of the uni-versal nature of the cosmos completed in man, but it is this universality and this completion that the prodigy, the monstruum, mercilessly questions. The “heroic fury” of man without place, without face, without enduring character, completely destroys the finite nature of the symbol, seeming at home only in the infinity of forms. His world “runs entirely on wheels,” as Montaigne says; “I don’t depict what already is; I depict the passage.”

What occurs less and less between Ficino and Bruno (rendering any philological analogy empty) is the idea of man as rooted in his finite, perfect cosmos. What does not diminish at all is the idea of a cosmic sympatheia, a cosmic weave of vincoli, of bonds, which it is up to the “magician” to decipher and, in some measure, to instigate. In fact, this idea grows stronger, becoming charged with still more crucial meaning: precisely because the “ratio” of things can no longer be contained within finite horizons, the mania that investigates it, that “hunts” that ratio, gains in intensity. This new way of thinking, exemplified by Bruno, soars beyond the globe, plows with the wings of the mind the immensity of space. No prejudice, no tradition can halt it at the Boundary of the celestial spheres, which have become an imaginary prison. The “magician” becomes precisely he who dissolves their image, and dissolves also the ancient, ancestral fear that lies behind them.

This interminable flight has a profound melancholia to it. Rather than overcoming the terrible nature of the liberty already reverberating in the words of Pico’s Oratio, it only confirms it. No flight has ever appeared less triumphal, more distant from mystical stereotypes. It makes the art of “binding” infinitely more wearisome and complex, for its heroic progress in no way illuminates the ratio vinculorum but only makes the secretness of that ratio’s character increasingly “clear.” What binds is latens, latent,8 yet it must be conceived of as utterly definite, since it manifests itself as if each thing were both bindable and binding. It is as if the vinculum or bond is part of each thing’s sensus, as the shadow is to the body. Absolutely definite in its effects, the vinculum eludes definition as to its nature. This dialectic of the definite and the hidden occurs with great force in the bond par excellence, the bond of love, where it is both impossible to understand the bond as a “thing” and impossible to avoid its power. It is impossible to loosen or free oneself from one’s bonds, for they remain hidden.

The best commentary on Arcimboldo’s work, I think, may be the De vinculis in genere of Giordano Bruno, who visited the “magical Prague” of Rudolf II a few months after the artist’s return from there to Milan. Bruno was writing in the same year that Arcimboldo painted his masterpiece Vertumnus, ca. 1590. Certainly, as we have already remarked, the artist continued to work within the perspective of a hierarchically ordered universe; the formidable Brunian Ent-ortung or “dis-placement” finds in his work only a definite and particular echo. Yet this is heard distinctly through the fundamental problem of the bond. In absolutely determined ways, according to a precise “constructive” logic, all things “hold each other,” even while “that” which holds remains mysterious. The power that holds is a nonexistent spiritus, a “nonbeing,” but this “nothing” is absolutely definite, or, rather, it is the definite, for every fiber of the universe shows it as such. It is “that” which allows vision and discourse, “that” which allows an intuition of the many, makes it possible to discuss the many. We can see multiplicity and talk about it because it is not disiecta membra, dispersed parts, but rather consists of relationships, correspondences, bonds, a marvelous system of influences, an extraordinary and inexhaustible polyphony.

The Nomos (in the word’s original, Pythagorean, musical meaning) of this polyphony, the law by which all souls are composed (“et vinciens ipse a vincto revinciatur,” he who binds is also bound, writes Bruno in De vinculis9), now becomes an endless problem. The closing, circular rhythm of the Neoplatonic bond, that “circulus amorosus” talked of by Leone Ebreo, is “de-formed” in Arcimboldo’s work into a swirl of ellipses; the complete symbol is replaced by a dramatic play of analogy and resemblance. Are the faces of things and of the terrena animalia, the creatures of the earth, completely totalized in the face of homo victor, or does that face not exist, is it nothing? It ought to be the climax of creation, but can we say what it looks like? Does it include every other face, or are we forced to refer to other faces that do solidly exist, that know how to be, in order to attempt an approximate definition of it? From a distance, only from a distance, “something” appears that seems to be the face of a man; if we look carefully and from close up, however, we find only a myriad of others, or, rather, a myriad of the Other. Man is boar, wolf, and fox, horse, stag, and bird, as in the kaleidoscopic play of Giambattista della Porta’s drawings of a magical physiognomy. To define man in some way, one must revert to the “other” beyond him, for he exists in no place or form. To define him, then, is to construct him artificially.

What we have covered thus far perhaps helps one understand the essential motives behind the term “artifice,” which has been employed by every writer on Arcimboldo. The word is by no means to suggest a gratuitous game, nor the amazement that the work must provoke in comparison with simple figurative invention. Artifice here is necessary, destined. At this point in time the bond that is the very meaning of things, and the face that once seemed to constitute the climax of creation, can be represented only through artifice. The bond has no ubi consistam, “where I stand”; to imagine it, then, requires effort, work, inventio. Precisely because it is no longer imaginable as “natural,” it seems marvelous. It becomes an extraordinary product of the imaginative process, which can intuit the play of sympatheia among all the souls of the soul of the world even without any fixed, finite support, and even outside the circle of the ancient symbolic cosmos. We stand on the thin ridge between, on the one hand, the Neoplatonism, Hermetic and Pythagorean in tone, of humanism and of the Renaissance, and on the other the Baroque ingenium or temperament that resolves itself in the “acute” figure, the “grotesque working” of metaphor and allegory, the hieroglyph in which things are never “denoted” from each other. We are not yet in the Baroque’s theater “full of marvels,” in Tesauro’s metaphor. Here, one’s amazement still turns on a thaumastòn or marvelous that is determined ontologically; the bond is rei sensus, absolutely implicit in the thing. Yet it is worth repeating that precisely this ontological foundation now appears hidden. Its pathos is nostalgia. The discourse, the logos, that seeks to name it is necessarily transformed into this sort of pathos.

In fact, Arcimboldo states perfectly clearly, but nothing he states can represent the bond that he wants to state. We have both perfect definition and perfect latency: the bond does not appear, but what does appear is the naming that “intends” it, that makes it into a sign. Signs appear as if the Realissimum, the most real—the power of the bond—might be represented through them. And it is precisely this that constitutes the essence of the artifice. This is the sense in which Lomazzo’s and Comanini’s eulogies of artifice are to be read, and not just in the sense of orthodox Aristotelianism, which concerns the joining of the lifelike and the marvelous in what one might call the “credible marvelous.” Indeed, Lomazzo’s Trattato della Pittura, in a polemic against classical esthetics, begins by praising “this artificial and admirable painting” capable of forms of “flame,” of figures with “the tortuousness of a live serpent,” of a “power of coloring” absolutely outside the canon. And Agrippa von Nettesheim—a source of Lomazzo’s, and of Brunian “magic”—had already spoken of the effectiveness of the pictorial “trick,” of the unnatural, the “monstrous,” that can be produced in painting (which explains paintings superiority to sculpture, and makes it truly ut poiesis, kin to poetry). In this passage, however, Lomazzo is referring to Michelangelo, and we should not take his words in late Baroque terms. Here, the question of artifice derives from the magic of the anima mundi; the marvelous stems from the fact that the bond can still be imagined (in the literal sense of “being put into image”), and everything seems to appear as in passage, in metamorphosis. It’s amazing that passage and metamorphosis can be signs of that anima. It’s amazing that that anima can be imagined (that is, images of it can be made) through this same vanitas of signs.


There emerges a sorrowful awareness of the inherent aporia of the Hermetic hymn to man. Balancing the power of man’s magic, an increasingly clear idea emerges of the unreachableness of that original source, of that unity, forever lost, that ought to have ensured him a foundation. The bonds and their workings seem increasingly to constitute themselves and to support themselves artificially. Bruno is aware of how “monstrous” Arcimboldo’s work is. The facies melancholica, the melancholy face, becomes that of the magician himself, and in his Autoritratto (Self-portrait, ca. 1575), Arcimboldo actually shows himself with it. (But isn’t the portrait of the 16th century itself a portrait of homo ille melancholicus, an image of the relationship between imaginative power and its unobtainable goals, between the cosmic power of the bond that holds everything together and the “misery” of the countless bonds that are produced in time, that come and go, that run on wheels like figures of Fortune—an image of the relationship, again, between the force of reason that explores beyond the celestial spheres of the ancient universe and the pathos that strikes it as soon as it recognizes its own wretchedness? From the rebuses of Dürer to the portraits of Arcimboldo, the century is reflected in this image).

The magician is he who binds and links “artificially.” Binding what seems dispersed, he creates marvelous images. But—and herein lies the particularly “critical” situation of Arcimboldo—are those really things that his images connect? Are his images really powerful “talismans” that draw and gather to themselves the powers of the things they represent, or have those things rather become simply “names”? Does the act of naming here stand at the point of turning into a mere play of signs, devoid of evocative power? The magician is he who possesses the power of the name–but of the name to the extent that it is “naturally” bound to the thing. Now, instead, a new form of naming manifests itself, or, better, the aporia of naming emerges. The thing cannot be named except through something other than itself. This is not a game, but a hard necessity. The name represents a desperate attempt to know the thing by means of something not the thing itself. We cannot say “earth” with earth itself; we cannot say “man,” nor any of man’s qualities, through those qualities themselves. We are ignorant of the thing; names only endlessly avoid it. Actually, they are nothing but an evanescent metaphor. A knowledgeable, mature metaphor of naming is Arcimboldo’s concern, even his philosophy. Rethinking the grand themes of apophatic theology before the appearance of humanist concerns, one of Bruno’s great teachers, Nicholas of Cusa, had already expressed this: we know nothing of a man, a stone, in fact of anything whatsoever, but we believe we know. If we ask ourselves about the thing’s quidditas, the intrinsic, inalienable property that makes it absolutely specific, we have nothing to say. We know only that the genus “man” is not the genus “stone,” and even this we know not because we know what a man is or what a stone is, but because they have different shapes and different operations. Our discourse never involves a positive scientia or knowledge of things, but a placement of them within relationships, an establishment of their differences from each other. Truly to know a thing would mean knowing it through the thing itself, intuiting within it its quidditas, what is proper to it. This kind of perfect, divine tautology is impossible to man. Man is the creature that makes metaphors.

And this is exactly what Arcimboldo expresses, with the greatest clarity. Those who have missed the deep seriousness of the artist’s approach have constantly claimed that he simply “substitutes” a mixture of objects or animals for the face of a man (a critical approach no less vulgar if it is accompanied by an explanation of what these objects or animals might symbolize); this is not at all the case. Rather, it happens that the face of a thing is namable only through something other than itself; that for us, no face has a true name; that our discourse is only an arranging through differences and relationships, through bonds that become ever more artificial, through the work of a process of binding. From that process, and ever more clearly, there emerges the note of the ephemeral, the transient, the melancholy.

Nothing is immediately expressible any more; everything that looks “natural” is actually a result, a product. The act of naming no longer “touches,” but rather is transformed into an expression of the pathos of distance. A long, adventurous, metaphorical construction, a slow work of the mind: “this” is what these marvelous pictorial artifices express, rather than any thing in itself. What seems to me a distinctive sign of the crisis that Arcimboldo represents is the fact that his portraits—and that we must speak of his work in terms of the portrait critics have known for some time—no longer have anything psychological about them. The great portraits of the Renaissance and Mannerist periods were informed by an inquiry into the inwardness, the unique, unrepeatable character, of the sitter. Arcimboldo’s “monsters” totally renounce this approach. The act of naming can know no quidditas: it proceeds only by genus, by type. Pure humors, the most general determinations of a creature, can be represented, but never those extremely subtle bonds, those impalpable filaments, that tie an individual to a particular astrum, that place him, singulatim, in the immense choir of the cosmos. The psiché, the principle of movement, the fons et origo of the motions and thoughts of the individual—this is the “thing” that necessarily escapes the net of naming. Thus reality itself, in its very being, is ineffable to us. The “extraordinary” in Arcimboldo is that while his work in many ways shares in the tradition that preceded him (as we have seen), he no longer seeks it out. It is as if he prevented himself from leaning in this direction. He puts himself where it is impossible to find roots: in the interminable game of metaphors. It is impossible to want “to be” where he is, yet he gives the appearance of being there, and so produces astonishment, wonder.

A portrait of pure humors, of abstract ideal types, is a portrait of names, of signs. The name is the person, and the person’s every quality is absorbed in it. People are absorbed in the metaphors that indicate them, and in metaphor alone they are celebrated. The Baroque court, the court of Baroque drama, is already implicit in this “drift” of Arcimboldo’s portraits. The game of naming is already expressed here through the work’s ceremoniousness, in which nothing has value in itself, nothing has its own face. The only things valued are the rituals of relationships and associations, the parts that have been given out to everyone. There are no real faces, only masks. And the mask expresses the type, the genus, the humor. In the grand drama of the court, which is a metaphor for the drama of the real world, each person’s name is the name of the role that person must perform as best possible, and this name has meaning only in its functional relationship to all the other names. Each person’s psyche is precisely what must be given up if the form of the game is to be preserved. And Arcimboldo is the perfect courtier.

The basis of allegorical celebration, then, is also the basis of the most acute melancholy. The names that exalt the type, the mask of sovereign power, also speak of its infinite distance from any “psychology,” in the true sense of the word. The most realistic representation of a humor as a universal genus simultaneously reveals an introspective impotence, an intuitive “misery.” Not even the forthright vivacity of Vertumnus subverts the framework of the drama. This “strange and deformed image” with a smile on its lips, this “kingly image” of Rudolf II, who lifts his head of ripe fruit and ears of corn above a torso of flowers and vegetables (so the work was described by Comanini, and by Lomazzo in his Idea del Tempio), is only apparently free from the weight of the mask, of the abstract individual element, of the established role. The King is every mask, every name. His power lies in his extraordinary ability to change his appearance in any direction; thus Arcimboldo shows him as Vertumnus, the Roman god of fertility, who could change shape at will. Yet not even the King can go beyond the game of names and masks. The actor par excellence, he knows all the roles. He is a prisoner of the drama in its totality and complexity; he encloses it entirely within himself, storing it within his being—a far cry from overcoming it, being “unbound” from it, or being able to have a real existence outside the stage on which it unfolds. The King is Spring and Winter, Summer and Autumn, Water and Fire, Earth and Air. He embraces within himself the drama of the temperaments and the elements; he is phlegmatic and choleric, sanguine and melancholy. He is the power of the drama itself, the expression of its inexorability.

And, as such, he is subject to Chronos, Time, as are all types, all masks, and all names. He who is subject to Chronos is homo ille melancholicus, and Arcimboldo’s most perfect portrait of him is La Terra (Earth, ca. 1570), which “looks,” in ancient harmony, toward the maturity of Autumn. It is also entitled Il cacciatore (The hunter), and the title is precise if it is intended in the sense of animarum venator, the hunter of souls: the hunter is he who seeks to bind within himself the great concert of every animated being. But his face is as much bound as binding.10 The symphony of the animals, in their vane of heraldic functions, becomes the mask that hides the psyche of the hunter. Or, better, the reigning image here is none other than the type of the hunter. And since the hunter can never “touch” his own elements, the elements of which his own face here appears composed, he replays the colors of autumn, of the melancholy earth on the verge of rest.

Hidden in is regal profile, in fact, is the signum triciput of Saturn. The eye is the jaws of a wolf, which looks backward; it is an emblem of memory, then, turned toward the past. The gaze of this figure “has” nothing but the past. The dog, emblem of the providentia that looks into the future, appears in the very center of the head. The lion of Bohemia, the lion of knowledge of the present, majestically supports the entire figure, along with the ram, symbol of the golden fleece. In his three aspects, then, Saturn dominates this face, which is really a face in triplicate. This is an imago regia, a royal image, but only in that it is an image of the King, an image that alludes to the King, to Saturn. It is not regal in and of itself, but only to the extent that it is a metaphor for the King, who “con-verts” all appearances. This is the image that governs the sad magic, the ceremonies, the artifices, the inventions, and the drama of Arcimboldo, a “wholly philosophical” painter.

Massimo Cacciari is a professor of esthetics at the Università di Venezia. His books include Crisis: Staggio sul pensiero negativo da Nietzsche a Wittgenstein. Milan: Del Crinnelli, 1976; Icone dell legge. Milan: Adelphi. 1985, and L’Angelo lecessario, Milan: Adelphi. 1986.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. Roland Barthes. “Retore e Mago,” in Arcimboldo, Milan: Franco Maria Ricci, 1980. Also published in English, in a translation by John Shipley.

2. Gregorio Comanini Il Figino, Mantua, 159. Reprinted in Trattati d’arte del Cinquecento, Bari: G. Laterza & Figli, 1962, p. 265.

3. Gian Paolo Lomazzo, Idea del Tempio della pittura, Milan. 1550. Ed cit. Bologna, 1785. p. 25.

4. See Barthes. p. 36.

5. Comanini. p 368.

6. See Eugène Garin. L’umanesimo italiano: Filosofia e vita civile nel rinascimento, Bari: G. Laterza &Figli, 1952.

7. Comanini, p. 269.

8. See Giordano Bruno, De vinculis in genere, II 23.

9. Ibid., I 21.

10. Ibid., I 30.

This essay is a version of one of the catalogue essays for "Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Le trasformazioni del volto umano nel XVI e nel XX secolo.” an exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice, from February 15 until May 31. The catalogue will be published in Milan by Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri.