Arcimboldo and his Many Shades of Gray




The Vegetable Gardener, 1587-90

Most of us know his fruit and vegetable portraits. Some of us (I only just found this out last week) know that he once lived and worked in Prague, at the court of Rudolf II (1552 –1612). But I, for one, never knew that the Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Milan, 1527 – Milan 1593), like many artisans of his day, was also fascinated by science and technogy. He was appointed in 1562 by Rudolf’s grandfather, Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564), as court portraitist — his early work was fairly traditional, so I don’t think the emperor realized that his grandson would one day be depicted as a fruit salad — but also served, in Vienna and, later, in Prague, as architect, stage designer, water engineer and art specialist. Some called him “the Leonardo of Habsbourg.”

Around 1590, Arcimboldo, who was also deeply interested in music, created his own system of musical notation: colored fabrics mounted on a board, where specific swaths designated specific musical notes. He wasn’t the first to equate sound with color, and certainly not the last, but he did so in such a unique way that none of my sources seems able to provide a helpful description. One calls it “a chart, on which he painted sets of graded colors,” each representing a musical note. Another says that he didn’t actually use colors, but an upright palette showing a “gray scale” from white to black, in twelve steps, with whites at the base and blacks at the top. In his dialogue on painting, “Il Figino, overo del fine della pittura” (1591), the Renaissance musician Gregorio Comanini offers the following, complex, explanation:

I would like to prove by means of the renowned Arcimboldo, who has located the tones, semitones, the diatesseron, the diapente, the diapason, and all the other musical consonances in colours, using the formulae which Pythagoras invented to define the same proportions in harmony. For he noticed in blacksmiths’ forges that the blows of the hammers on the anvil produced consonances proportionate to their weight, and having noted the numbers from whose concurrent diversity the many consonances of ordinary melody are formed, hung corresponding weights from the same number of strings as the number of hammers seen in the forges, from which it appeared that a string which was longer than another in the sesquiottava proportion produced a tone against the other, i.e., a full and perfect sound in the proportion of nine to eight. Similarly, he covered a board with some particularly white colour, and darkening it a little, one part after another he drew from this the sesquioctaval and the tone itself.

Arcimboldo, the sources agree, tested his “device” on small groups of musicians by standing in front of it and pointing to certain combinations of colors, thus enabling the musicians to “play a tune.” An interesting aspect of this particular system was that the lowest notes were indicated by white and lighter colors, while higher notes were progressively darker, which contradicts our tendency to think of lower tones as dark and deep and higher tones as light and bright.

It was probably never Archimboldo’s intention to abolish the system of musical notation of his day and replace it with his own. His aim, writes Gregorio Comanini, in a rare moment of grammatical simplicity, was to show us “that the art of music and the art of painting walk along the same path and follow the same laws of creation.”

Afbeelding (plenty of fruit and vegetables) (Arcimboldo, as seen by Jan Šwankmajer) (with very special plate)


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