1 - 2 - 3 - 4
Arcimboldo as a Scientist

When we think of Leonardo da Vinci, we admire him not only for his art, but also his many scientific activities.
Arcimboldo was in fact very similar. Not only was he valued as a painter, art connoisseur and organizer of tournaments, but also as a first-class scientist and engineer.

His friends thought of him as a man of the "sharpest intelligence" and someone who was "extremely well-read". His contemporaries used to praise his resourcefulness as an architect and a builder of fortresses as well as his ingenuity and inventiveness. For example, he was said to have developed a method of crossing a river quickly without a bridge or a ferry.
Through Don Gregorio Comanini, we know about the scientific side of Arcimboldo's work. In Benno Geiger's book we find a discussion of Arcimboldo by Lionello Levi, a music critic, who discusses what he calls "this somewhat nebulous account" by Comanini.
Lionello Levi shows that Arcimboldo took as his starting point the "pythagorean harmonic proportions of tones and semitones" which he subsequently translated into their corresponding colour values, using both his artistic "instinct" and a scientific method.
And indeed Arcimboldo must have been quite successful in his endeavour, because, according to Comanini, Arcimboldo once gave instructions to Mauro Cremonese, Rudolph II's court musician: having painted a number of chords on paper, he asked the musician to locate them on his harpsichord, which he did with success. "This extremely inventive painter," wrote Comanini, "knew not only how to find the relevant semitones, both small and large, in his colours, but also how to divide a tone into two equal parts; very gently and softly he would gradually turn white into black, increasing the amount of blackness, in the same way that one would start with a deep, heavy note and then ascend to the high and finally the very high ones."
In this way, step by step, starting from the purest white and adding more and more black, he managed to render an octave in twelve semitones, with the colours ranging from a "deep" white to a "high" black. He then did the same for a range of two octaves.
"For just as he would gradually darken the colour white and use black for indicating heights, he did the same with yellow and all the other colours, using white for the lowest notes that one could sing, then green and blue for the middle ones, then brightly glowing colours and dark brown for the highest notes: this was possible because one colour really merges into another and follows it like a shadow. White is followed by yellow, yellow by green, and green by blue, blue by purple, and purple by a glowing red; just as tenor follows bass, alto follows tenor and canto follows alto."
This account of Gregorio Comanini's probably only describes the beginning of Arcimboldo's research. As the artist himself did not leave any notes, we can only speculate that he intended to extend the system along the lines of a "theory of perception".
It is unlikely, however, that Giuseppe Arcimboldo wanted to abolish the system of musical notation, which had already been fixed at the time, and substitute his own colour scale for it.
In fact Gregorio Comanini probably gives us the best id of his aims: "So you can see that the art of music and the art painting walk along the same path and follow the same laws of creation."

The Birth of St. Catherine
Stained glass window, 116 x 67 cm Milan Cathedral,
pane no. 6 in the 14th window of the southern apse.
To a design by Arcimboldo (ca. 1551), executed in Cologne, 1566.

To show that Arcimboldo also used to work within the stylistic conventions of his time, we have included two pictures of stained glass windows at Milan Cathedral. It is not known how many designs were made by Arcimboldo. Even the ones that were actually used cannot all be identified with absolute certainty, because Arcimboldo was not the only artist working for Milan Cathedral. His design for The Birth of St. Catherine forms part of a cycle based on the legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was martyred for refusing to sacrifice to the statues of Zeus and Aphrodite. This design, which was executed by the Cologne master Konrad de Mochis, shows no indication of Arcimboldo's later development. Nevertheless, he received a lot of praise for these pictures from his contemporaries, just as he did for his other works.

St. Catherine Talks to the Emperor about the True Faith
Stained glass window, 116 x 67 cm Milan Cathedral,
pane no. 57 of the 14th window in the southern apse.
To a design by Arcimboldo (ca. 1551), executed in Cologne, 1566.

This second example of Arcimboldo's traditional style has been taken from the same legend. It shows St. Catherine talking to the Emperor and his scholars. When the Emperor had heard of Catherine's refusal to sacrifice to the gods, he called upon fifty learned men to make her change her views. As a result, however, they were all defeated by the witness of this young follower of the Lord and became Christians themselves. Like Catherine, they were all put to death.

Eve and the Apple, with Counterpart
Oil on canvas, each 43 x 35.5 cm
Private collection, Basle

The Passing of the Virgin
Mural tapestry, 423 x 470 cm
Como Cathedral
Inscription at the top: The Wool
Weavers' Guild of Como
Inscription in the lower left-hand corner:
made in Ferrara 1562

This mural tapestry, which Arcimboldo had designed for Como Cathedral, is a further example of his art before he moved to Prague. There are eight designs with themes from the Old and New Testament, all of which are almost certainly by Arcimboldo. Surrounded by a fantastic landscape and the twelve apostles, the Virgin Mary is lying on her death-bed. Geiger maintains that, although the general approach is traditional in these designs, they already contain elements of the painter's later development. Geiger points out that there is a similarity between the elaborate decorations that form the frame and Arcimboldo's later pictures.

Maximiliano II y su familia


El otono

El otono

The Admiral

The Lady of Good Taste

Whimsical portrait


Tree of Jesse
anteriore al 1562