Skip to main content


Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting

In Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s most famous paintings, grapes, fish, and even the beaks of birds form human hair. A pear stands in for a man’s chin. Citrus fruits sprout from a tree trunk that doubles as a neck. All sorts of natural phenomena come together on canvas and panel to assemble the strange heads and faces that constitute one of Renaissance art’s most striking oeuvres. The first major study in a generation of the artist behind these remarkable paintings, Arcimboldo tells the singular story of their creation. 

Drawing on his thirty-five-year engagement with the artist, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann begins with an overview of Arcimboldo’s life and work, exploring the artist’s early years in sixteenth-century Lombardy, his grounding in Leonardesque traditions, and his tenure as a Habsburg court portraitist in Vienna and Prague. Arcimboldo then trains its focus on the celebrated composite heads, approaching them as visual jokes with serious underpinnings—images that poetically display pictorial wit while conveying an allegorical message. In addition to probing the humanistic, literary, and philosophical dimensions of these pieces, Kaufmann explains that they embody their creator’s continuous engagement with nature painting and natural history. He reveals, in fact, that Arcimboldo painted many more nature studies than scholars have realized—a finding that significantly deepens current interpretations of the composite heads.

Demonstrating the previously overlooked importance of these works to natural history and still-life painting, Arcimboldo finally restores the artist’s fantastic visual jokes to their rightful place in the history of both science and art.

336 pages | 39 color plates, 43 halftones, 1 table | 8 1/2 x 11 | © 2010

Art: European Art


"With characteristically probing scholarship and the discovery of new Arcimboldo nature studies, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann illuminates the fascinating interplay of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s aspirations in the realms of antiquity, literature, imperial glorification, and natural history. Kaufmann shows that many of Arcimboldo’s works were simultaneously models of imitative naturalism and ingenious fantasy. In so doing, he gives Arcimboldo his due as a learned and ambitious artist who was central to the origins of nature study and independent still life."

Pamela H. Smith, Columbia University

"In this remarkable new book, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann manages to show that Giuseppe Arcimboldo, often considered a sort of surrealist avant la lettre, was actually an instrumental figure in the origins of still life painting. Moreover, Kaufmann convincingly links Arcimboldo’s work to the nascent discipline of Renaissance natural history, which stressed the detailed depiction of natural objects ad vivum. Building on his decades as a consummate Arcimboldo scholar, Kaufmann succeeds in drawing together the complex facets of the painter’s life in order to reveal a composite figure as detailed and variegated as one of Arcimboldo’s own teste composte. The result is a far-reaching volume that will appeal as much to historians of science and culture as to those in the history of art."

William R. Newman, Indiana University

"Over more than 300 pages, this elegantly illustrated book offers us an abundance of complex and elliptical reflections on art, nature, philosophy, and poetry, which makes the book an important working tool for research purposes."

Sylvia Ferino | Art Newspaper

 “Arcimboldo provides for the first time a brilliantly nuanced study of paintings that, until now, had been only superficially treated, despite (or because of) their visual charm and evident complexity. Kaufmann’s masterful analysis of these paintings, the inclusion of so many new drawings and documentary evidence, his skilled visual and textual analyses, and his important discussion of the contexts in which the painter worked easily make this book a fundamental source not only on Arcimboldo but also on early modern Milan and court culture, on the development of natural science, and on the rise of still-life painting in Europe.”

CAA reviews

Table of Contents

Table of Illustrations

Preface and Acknowledgments


1 Arcimboldo’s Lombard Origins

2 Arcimboldo from 1562: The Creation of Composite Heads

3 Learning, Poetry, and Art

4 Serious Jokes

5 Natural Philosophy, Natural History, and Nature Painting

6 Nature Studies

7 Arcimboldo and the Origins of Still Life

8 Arcimboldo’s Paradoxical Paintings and the Origins of Still Life

Conclusion: Arcimboldo in the History of Art

Appendix 1. Arcimboldo, the Facchini, and Popular Culture

Appendix 2. Arcimboldo and Meda at Monza

Appendix 3. Concordance of Arcimboldo Images from the Aldrovandi Letter, Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, Dresden Kupferstich-Kabinett CA 213, Vienna (cod. min. 42) and the “Museum” of Rudolf II (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. min. 129 and 130)




Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press