Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (r. 1583-1612) patronized artists and scientists galore and helped enrich the culture of his favorite city of Prague. He brought the likes of Tyco Brahe, famed astronomer and wearer of fake noses, lord of logarithms Joost Burgi, and landscape painters and portraitures galore. But among Rudolf's many curiosities - contained in Kunstkammers or Wunderkammers, galleries of wonders ranging from weird artifacts of natural history to almost one thousand paintings - was one particular portrait of him as a man made of fruits and veggies. Huh?
Artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo was obsessed with the natural world, which made its way into his paintings. One such was his portrait of Rudolf entitled Vertumnus, named for the Roman god of gardens, seasons, and fertility. In the painting, Rudolf is depicted as this odd divinity, his face, neck, and upper body all made out of things Vertumnus would have ruled over (veggies, fruits, flowers, etc.). After all, what ruler wouldn't want his nose to be painted as a pear?
Here's a traditional portrait of Rudolf, sans produce. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
But the symbolic significance of Vertumnus goes beyond its unusual context. Rudolf was obsessed with the natural sciences and alchemy, the art of trying to turn base substances into gold. In mythology, Vertumnus was the brother of Hermes, patron of alchemical sciences; thus, by depicting his patron as this god, "Arcimboldo intended to glorify his patron as protector of the arts and sciences," according to Peter Marshall's The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague. And just like Vertumnus, Rudolf was symbolically represented as master of all seasons and lord of time, channeling the "eternal" reign of his dynasty, the Hapsburgs (wishful thinking).
The painting also demonstrated Rudolf's willingness to accept new ideas and creative representations of himself (he apparently really liked the vegete-portrait). Arcimboldo additionally tapped into his patron's love for naturalism with this funny depiction. Ever the jokester, Arcimboldo also had a sense of whimsy when it came to his paintings (as is pretty obvious).
Feature image via Wikimedia Commons.