Archimboldo & Bosch

monstrous muncher from Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, detail

A blog about food and art has a few basics it absolutely has to cover. Proust is one of these. Archimboldo is another. This Renaissance Mannerist been at the top of my "to do" list since I started this blog, but I've been putting it off because I know that Archimboldo's work is not simply playful or whimsical—that it isn't just "food play" but potently scary stuff—yet I'm not sure why this is the case. In other words, looking at an Archimboldo, I feel the sorts of things (uncertainty, discomfort) that are almost invariably inspired by successful works of art belonging to that mysterious aesthetic category known as the Grotesque.

Maybe, in Archimboldo's case, the scary part is nothing more nor less than the ambiguous nature of his portraits (or are they still lifes?). Is this food we're looking at? Or a person? Or neither? Or both?

Autumn (1573)
  Art of the Grotesque often draws our attention to the thingness of things by swapping around attributes, melding them, and confusing us. For example, Edgar Allan Poe is an expert in convincing us that objects we expect to be dead, static, or inanimate are actually sentient, mobile, willful (things like corpses, walls, floors, and even whole landscapes). In other examples of this genre, things we expect to be alive are revealed to be dead or inanimate. Archimboldo's work trucks in this particular field of confusion.

Thank you, Samuel A. from NYC, for sending in these thought-provoking observations about Guiseppe Archimboldo and Heironymous Bosch:
As I was scrolling your blog, I saw your post concerning Roberto BolaƱo's writing.  I recently finished 2666 [Bolano's last novel], and it's lingering taste is still as potent as that left from the white figs I pulled from the tree and ate this evening.  Recalling the novel, visions and sequences quickly spilled into my mind, but it was the name Archimboldi* that rung softly like a continuous hum, which inevitably brought me back to the subject of your blog.  But the name manifested as Archimboldo, whose awkward and fascinating paintings deal with both the human figure and, of course, food.  
*Benno von Archimboldi is the pen name of the fictional German author Hans Reiter, a central character in 2066.
Vegetables in the Bowl or The Gardener (date unknown)
(seen upside down, the painting reads as a bowl stuffed with veggies!)
Like his predecessor, Hieronymus Bosch...
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1504) - detail from right wing
Speaking of food, this hellish fowl friend is consuming the gluttonous only for them to be defecated into an eternal black hole! In Bosch's mind, the sinful were to be tortured eternally in hell by perpetually participating in those very sins they committed (note the musicians being tortured by their own instruments...)

As I was saying, like his predecessor Bosch, Arcimboldo (1527–1593) is today a debatable subject for scholars.  Were these artists geniuses, or just plain crazy?  Frankly, all signs point to the former.  Both artists' work are unequivocally imaginative. Timeless.  

(In a follow-up email to the above contribution, Samuel wrote in again to report this serendipitous and almost magical find, connecting Archimboldo and Bolano: "As in Archimboldo's paintings, the individual elements of 2666 are easily catalogued, while the composite result, though unmistakable, remains ominously implicit, conveying a power unattainable by more direct strategies." [from a Jonathan Lethem NYT review of Bolano's work])  

I grew up looking at Bosch's famous triptych because my mother had some high quality prints of it, framed and hung on the walls of every apartment we ever lived in, and yet, looking at the "fowl friend" Samuel directs our attention to in this detail of Bosch's hellscape (above), I noticed (or registered) for the first time that the bird is actually an immature one, as signified by its downy beard, exposed skin, and disproportionately large eyes. I notice also—and find this most interesting in the context of this blog's main line of inquiry—that the human body half-devoured by the fowl friend is defecating full-grown crows or black sparrows, or something like that, while the monstrous baby bird, as Samuel points out, is defecating, or otherwise excreting, full-grown humans. A rich if sickly image illustrating the eternal cycles of life/death, food/excrescence, nourishment/regeneration...

a few more Archimboldos:

Whimsical Portrait (date unknown)

Bosch's spirit seems alive and well, here:

Eve with Apple (1578)

Archimboldo's most famous painting:

Summer (1563)
And one of his most disturbing:

The Cook (c.1570)
another double-take painting, like The Gardener
(above); flip it upside down and this is
a plateful of roast birds and suckling pigs
For those not quite sated, many more Archimboldo's can be found here and here.

Guiseppe Archimboldo

Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch
(c. 1550)
attributed to Jacques Le Boucq



  1. I love when the "old guys" make the "new guys" look tame!

  2. Living close to the 'Jeroen Bosch' city 's Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands I have often seen his amazing dense filled masterpieces. it's quite nice to see him mentioned in this index!

  3. wow, I envy you that. It must be a truly incredible experience to see his work in the original. (the more I do this index, the more I feel a tug toward Holland!)


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