Why Arcimboldo is a Must-See Exhibition in Rome this Fall.

By Virginia Villari

When you visit a big city like Rome it’s often difficult to decide among the myriad of things to see and do in a limited amount of time. Whether you’re visiting for the first time or you know the city well, here’s a show you don’t want to miss this fall/winter.

If you are in Rome or will be traveling there in the next few months you should really check out this exhibition. From October 2017 to February 2018 there’s a retrospective of genius painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo on view at Palazzo Barberini, a stunning baroque palace in the city center.

So why would you include Arcimboldo in your Roman holiday’s agenda?

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Exhibition entrance.

Palazzo Barberini

First of all, by seeing Arcimboldo you’ll kill two birds with one stone. There is so much to see in Rome between archeological sites, churches and museums, so, in addition to the exhibition, you’ll get to visit Palazzo Barberini, an amazing example of Roman Baroque architecture. 

In 1625 Maffeo Barberini, of the noble Barberini Family (who later became Pope Urban VIII), purchased the site where the palace now stands from the Sforza Family. The architectural project sought to combine an urban princely dwelling with a semi-enclosed garden that would have the features of a suburban villa.

Today Palazzo Barberini is the seat of the National Gallery of Ancient Art, one of the most important painting collections in Italy, and a space for temporary exhibitions. The location is also very convenient as you’ll be at walking distance from beautiful sites like Fontana di Trevi, Via del Corso, Via Margutta and the Spanish Steps, among many others.

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Palazzo Barberini’s Main Entrance.

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Palazzo Barberini’s Garden.

A Unique Artist

Giuseppe Arcimboldo it’s not your typical Renaissance painter. Unfortunately, for this reason, he’s usually superficially treated in Art History manuals about Italian Renaissance. Despite this skimming, his work is so unique that everybody knows him at least in terms of  “that painter who does faces out of fruit and veggies…”

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Autumn, oil on canvas, 1572.

Arcimboldo was way ahead of his time to the point where his paintings could actually be our contemporary. He was born and raised in Milan and apprenticed at his father’s atelier. During those early years, he worked on the stained glass windows of the Milan’s Duomo. By mid 1500 Arcimboldo was a member of a circle of artists who were researching human expression and the natural world, especially in its most unusual and bizarre aspects.

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Winter, oil on wood, circa 1560.

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Spring, oil on wood, circa 1560.

Arcimboldo created his famous “Composite Heads” within this cultural context. The success of this body of work is linked to a very specific phase of art collecting: European commercial routes opened towards the far East and the Americas and, as a result, brought to the Old Continent animals, plants, minerals, scientific samples and artifacts never seen before. Those novelties stimulated in artists and collectors alike a strong interest and taste for the exotic, the eccentric and the grotesque.

Collectors would gather those objects in eclectic displays that came to be defined with the German term of  “Wunderkammer” (cabinet of curiosities in English).

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Wunderkammer samples

Arcimboldo’s art was particularly appreciated at the House of Habsburg in Vienna, where he became court artist in 1562. There, the motif of the “composite heads” reached its full form through the complete replacement of human features with natural objects and aspects. Very famous, and on display at the exhibition, are the Four Season Cycle and the Four Elements Series.


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Water, oil on wood, circa 1566.

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Earth, oil on wood, circa 1566.

Arcimboldo’s painting style is definitely naturalistic and draws inspiration from the Flemish painting of the 16th century, characterized by the meticulous representation of the subjects’ most microscopic elements. On the other hand, the father of Surrealism Andre’ Breton defined Arcimboldo as the first Surrealist artist in history, due to the absurd and bizarre nature of his work.

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Air, oil on canvas, circa 1566.

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Fire, oil on canvas, circa 1566.

The Roman exhibition is the first retrospective of Arcimboldo’s work in 10 years and one of the few retrospectives of the artist ever curated. Most of the painter’s work is located in Vienna and Prague, as part of public as well as private collections. Therefore, this is an amazing opportunity to see this Master’s incredible artistic production gathered together.

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Exhibition View.

Arcimboldo’s art is witty and playful. It engages the audience in discovering hidden forms and exploring new ways of looking at the world. Both adults and kids were absolutely fascinated by the originality of his visual language. 

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Study for the Four Season Cycle.

If you have any other suggestions about cool exhibitions and events in Rome this fall/winter drop a line in the comment section!

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