Arcimboldo exhibit in Milan

"Spring" 1563 oil on panel 65x50cm Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

The spring collection of Milan’s fashion week goes floral:  models with rosy cheeks, budding lips, and silky bouquet coiffers are dressed in lush verdant foliage designs with a daisy field inspired high-neck ruffled collar.  Colorful compositions are striking not only to the eyes but to all of the senses, a tribute to the fantastical imagination which created this natural madness.  In an uncanny union of man’s ingenuity and nature’s diversity, texture and content combine this time, however, to create not fashion, but art.

The renowned fashion houses of Italy may be promoting floral designs and green attitudes this spring, but they certainly did not imagine up the Spring designs of the 16th-century artist, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593), whose works are being exhibited at the Palazzo Reale in Milan with a great attention to the artist’s Milanese roots and inspired milieu.

"Vertumnus", 1590 oil on panel 68x56cm Skokloster Castle, Skokloser

Considered a rather obscure artist before the MOMA’s 1936 exhibition, “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism,” Arcimboldo was rediscovered for the international acclaim that he received as the Italian court painter for Ferdinand I at the Habsburg court in Vienna, and later, to Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II at the court in Prague.

He has become most famous for his grotesque composite portrait heads of flora and fauna that are depicted in his renowned series: The Seasons and the Elements. His bizarre compositions create an uncanny union between the scientific observation of nature and its fantastical application to the portrait bust, imbued with metaphor and fanciful metamorphosis!

The Seasons proved to be very popular among the royal court, and several replicas were requested of Arcimboldo.  The peachy cheeks and cherry lips of Summer are mature and juicy, Autumn’s pumpkin-head is crowned with dangling grapes ripe for harvest, the barren gnarly bark and fungus lips of Winter are worse than his bite, and the budding complexion of Spring explodes in over eighty varieties of vibrant flowering species. This mad celebration of nature has no bounds as the Seasons copious yield makes way for the four Elements, whose allegorical depictions arouse curiosity:

"Water" 1566 oil on panel 66.5x50.5cm Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Fire’s hairdo blazes in red licking flames; Air‘s crown of proud feathered friends reign over its aerial kingdom; the bust of Earth is composed of a tangled menagerie of exotic and indigenous species and taxidermy; the body of Water is teeming with marine life pulled from their watery depths, intertwined with seashell ears and a pear necklace draped around the slimy personified bust!  It is believed that the Elements and the Seasons were intended to be paired with one another: a confrontation between the bizarre creatures and their symbolism.

Arcimboldo’s wild imagination was certainly influenced by his time, and this exhibition highlights his role in the transition from the DaVinci school, strongly present in Milan, and later preparing for the Baroque genius of Caravaggio.

Leonardo DaVinci’s dedication to the observation of the natural world and his sketches of “grotesque” caricature influenced a new generation of thinkers and artists that would seek to show scientific accuracy as well as illusion.  Emphasis is placed on the fervid cultural Milanese atmosphere at the turn of the 16th century, one that harbored a taste for intellectual riddles, satire, artifice, and exotic elegance among the European courts.  The show features over three-hundred works that trace Arcimboldo’s formative years and commissions in the Lombard capital, and proceeds to follow him to Vienna, where he creates for intrigue of the court.

During the age of discovery, the Habsburg family was one of the great patrons of intellectual pursuits and the arts.  Arcimboldo’s naturalist illustrations of flora and fauna created for nature catalogues are featured in the exhibition, and this study as well as the royal family menagerie and botanical gardens, served as great reference to the artist for his paintings.  New species found in the “new worlds” were brought to the court’s collections to inspire exotic additions to his creations.

"Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit" 1590 oil on panel 55.9x41.6cm French & Company, New York

Many of Arcimboldo’s most famous works such as the Seasons and the Elements are displayed in nine rooms of the Palazzo Reale; the show includes gems such as his tricky reversible paintings as well as the portrait bust of Rudolf II depicted as Vertumnus, the god of the seasons, posing like a three-dimensional cornucopia!

A re-elaboration of the exhibition held by the National Gallery in Washington, “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy,” Arcimboldo returns home to once again stake his fame at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, “Arcimboldo-Artista Milanese tra Leonardo e Caravaggio.”  The show runs from February 11th-May 22.  Instead of going to the runway, check out Arcimboldo for fanciful inspiration!

Philip Haas "Winter (After Arcimboldo)"

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Pour on the Gravy Milan!


Explaining Thanksgiving to Italian can be an interesting venture.  It is not that Italians aren’t curious about our heritage holiday, but it is the total concept of the holiday and the meal that is intriguing to the curious Italian.

For starters, lets talk about the history.  Well, there were our Pilgrim Fathers that shared a harvest festival with fellow Indians in a joint proclamation of thanks, peace, and partnership.  The astute Italian could then possibly respond, “Now at what point did you kill them and boot them out West?”  For those not well studied the New World origins, sometimes I skip this small paradoxical detail and explain the modern significance of thanks and family that this holiday inspires in us turkey-stuffing patriots.  This usually provokes a nice reaction.

The second lesson is the importance of the ritualistic meal.  The idea of a traditional meal is by no means a stretch for this culture focused around the dining table; I would dare say that our devotion to the Thanksgiving staples does not even come close to the year-round observation of their sacred and distinctive gastronomic heritage.   However, as the eclectic star spangled banner waves above our Fatherland’s purple mountains, it will suffice to say that at least one day out of the year, Americans are 100% devoted to serving up a truly traditional American-grown meal (in 1621, yes—now, probably our food is coming from Mexico or Brazil).  Besides patriotic ambitions like the hamburger or ketchup, I believe that this holiday is the most well-balanced, non-greasy example that we have representing our unified culinary roots.  So it’s important!

Ingredients of the Meal:  Given that Italians rarely ever eat turkey, this would lead to the greatest misunderstanding of the cooked dishes; they usually assume that it tastes like a dry chicken, and the turkeys tend to be smaller.  “Mirtilli” is a word in Italian that means all kinds of berries that look like blueberries, and therefore, there is a discrepancy as to what actually are cranberries.  Their attempt at cranberry sauce usually uses dubious “mirtilli,” and the fruit used is definitely not cranberries!  Their corn is not as delicious as our summer corn, and for this reason, they are not good judges (The only time this will escape my mouth).  Sweet potatoes can be found here, but I don’t believe many know the brown-sugar glazed goodness of Thanksgiving sweet potatoes.  Glorious stuffing in its traditional conception is misunderstood with Italian variations of “ripieno” or stuffing.  For the corn bread, I have no clue (I usually make it from a box, admittedly).  Last but not least, gravy is unheard of here.  What?

The gravy concept segues into the next difficult conception of the sauce drizzled on the  “whole” heaping plate.  Italians have a lovely way of eating a long meal in many courses, including an appetizer, first course, second course, sides, and desserts, which neatly separate the pastas, meats, veggies, and sweets.  The idea of literally shoving everything on one plate and drizzling steaming gravy on the heaping pile of cornucopia goodness is definitely a new experience.

Gluttony:  Although this term is easily associated with appetites for the Italian cuisine, Italians usually stop at a reasonable level of satisfaction.  This holiday is created specifically for the stuffing of the human to his brimming limits, mimicking Mr. Turkey.   We are giving thanks for the fact that we can be together and gorge on our feast, pour gravy down our throats, unbuckle our belts, and doze off on the couch in an uncomfortable, hard-breathing slumber!

The next satisfying certainty about our holiday is that we will be eating leftovers for a week!  As I was cooking my own Milanese Italian meal, I was reprimanded with the amount of food I was preparing.  This is coming from a culture that is appalled at the idea of a doggy bag, and they usually make or eat enough to avoid leftovers.  I respond, “This is the POINT! My meal, my rules!”

So there you have it.  This year, I went to the macellaio, or the butcher, and I ordered my special Thanksgiving turkey.  Two other fellow American expats also had placed their orders in patriotic duty.  I cooked up my feast for two days, and I whispered sweet nothings to my lovely turkey, Mario, as he was sizzling in the oven.  The courses were topped off with an American cheesecake and “mirtilli,” specifically blueberries.  My Italian friends were great sports: they piled the food on their plate, family style, we ate like pigs, and we all poured on the gravy, American style, in Milan.