Still Life With Old Banana Nose
Transformations of the Face
From the Sixteenth to the
Twentieth Century

Pontus Hulten, et al.
(Abbeville Press)
Art lovers are familiar with the tradition of still life as brought to perfection in sixteenth century Holland. The prototypical painting shows a cloth-covered table upon which rests a bowl of fruit, a loaf of bread, a lobster, a bowl of fruit, a slain grouse, and a bowl of fruit, all rendered with such uncanny realism that viewers must be physically restrained from rushing forward and taking a bite out of the canvas.

One of the masters of this form is the great Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1540-1589) whose singular, and unfortunate, accomplishment was to fuse the still life with human portrait painting. A forerunner of minimalism, his portraits made no pretension to grandeur, metaphysical statement, symbolism, sex, or drama, but rather gives the viewer something else --- especially if he missed dinner.

For example, one of Arcimboldo's most famous paintings, executed in 1573, was a portrait commissioned by the tragic Duke of Porcini i Zucchini --- an eminent but impoverished Florentine nobleman who suffered a series of reverses when his vast fettucine holdings slipped through his fingers. The portrait shows a man with a zucchini for a nose, peas in the pod for lips, cherries and figs for eyes, garlic bolls for ears, and hair of strawberries, grape leaves and prickly pear. A wild artichoke is shown growing out of the Duke's navel. The portrait is called "Summer."

The Duke suffered cardiac arrest on his first glimpse of the masterpiece, but at a second viewing, during a wake held in his honor, made no complaint. The Duke's sisters, deeply grateful to Arcimboldo, commissioned him to paint their aged mother, the aged Duchess of Risotto a la Milanese. Giuseppe painted her crimson with chartreuse flecks, adding a second layer of shellac when she refused to stop breathing. Finally, unimpressed with the Duchess, the artist dropped the project in disgust, and the old lady was shattered.

Arcimboldo's fame spread like mayonnaise, giving him the freedom to continue his creative work, stopping only for an occasional sandwich. A succession of masterpieces poured from his easel and his icebox: alluring nude studies of courtesans as cannelloni; a stunning Last Supper tableau comprised entirely of radishes and Milk Duds; a wry and playful rendering of a Bolognese merchant as mortadella on rye. One account tells of the merchant's confusion when first told to assume his pose --- he didn't know what to do with his hands. With characteristic charm, Arcimboldo said, "Hold the mustard" --- and put the old gent at ease.

The origin of Arcimboldo's unique vision is obscure. As a child, he was the apple of his mother's eye, but his father frequently referred to him as a "tutti-frutti," which may have led to his many complexes. By adolescence, he had developed into something of a nut and his mother's favorite nickname for him was Filiberto. This was deeply resented by his sisters Hazel and Pea and his brother Wal.

He was sent for education to Brussels, where he sprouted, and --- in time --- grew tall and willowy. Then, in 1559, he contracted Dutch Elm Disease. and had to return to Italy. Young Giuseppe slowly recovered his health at home with his parents, his art, and the casaba melon which had become his dearest companion.

It was during this period of convalescence that the artist perfected the revolutionary technique that made his name --- but ultimately caused his downfall. His troubles began after Cosimo de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, commissioned a portrait. The great man expected something in Arcimboldo's botanical style, which by then had become rather fashionable. But the artist was already marching to the beet of a different drummer. He produced a masterpiece in which the Grand Duke was rendered with a periwinkle for one eye and a green wrasse for the other, a cuttlefish for the chin, and hair consisting of oysters, whelks, and goose barnacles, all surmounted by a loggerhead turtle. The painting was entitled "Water". The Grand Duke was appalled, and threatened to vote against any more funding for the NEA.

All of Giuseppe's friends and relatives sensed that he had gone too far this time, and begged him to return to the good old days of painting banana noses, passion-fruit eyes, and navel-orange navels. Who could blame them? But a true artist hearkens to no voice but the Voice from Within, and Arcimboldo went blithely on his way. After "Water," he painted the Doge of Venice as Pressed Duck with Green Peppercorn Sauce. Then, he crossed the line entirely by doing Pope Gregory XIII as a side-dish of Flageolets au Pissenlit. The ensuing scandal could not be contained, and Arcimboldo was seized and brought before the Court of Assizes.

The court sentenced him to be sauteed in extra virgin olive oil with a pinch of Rosemary. However, even though it was Italy, Rosemary took exception to being pinched, and petitioned for a reduced sentence. The Court accepted the petition and decreed that Giuseppe should be flambeed and then reduced. It looked as if his days were numbered, though not necessarily in sequence.

Fortunately, the world Arts community rallied to Guiseppe's defense. There were petition drives, walks, demonstrations, rock concerts, and --- finally --- the Brooklyn Museum replaced its cafeteria entirely by a retrospective show of Arcimboldo's wurst work. At length, the authorities relented, and released Arcimboldo into the custody of his casaba melon. When the gaol doors swung open, the artist stepped blinking into the sunlight, fell to his knees, and cried: la speranza e il pan de' miseri. Nobody knew what he meant, but they realized that it would be best to hustle him out of Italy. Although penniless, Arcimboldo managed to work his way to the New World by painting pictures of chicken teriyaki on the insides of little white cardboard boxes for the airlines.

He ended up in Gilroy, California where he founded the Garlic Festival, took to consuming Gallo red by the gallon, and went into a slow decline. He spent the last days of his life riding around with a potato chip his shoulder, buttonholing strangers on the street, and singing songs like Yes, We Have No Bananas Today, Orange You Sad You Left Me, and Canteloupe Today My Honeydew. Passersby would occasionally shake their heads sadly and toss a few coppers into his colander. The exact place and time of his passing is not recorded. Somewhere in Gilroy, he passed out of our lives and into History, where he remains, fitfully remaindered, to this day.

---John Spencer Wilson

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up