The job of a renaissance court portraitist was to produce likenesses of his sovereigns to display at the palace and give to foreign dignitaries or prospective brides. It went without saying the portraits should be flattering. Yet, in 1590, Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted his royal patron, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, as a heap of fruits and vegetables (opposite). With pea pod eyelids and a gourd for a forehead, he looks less like a king than a crudité platter.
Lucky for Arcimboldo, Rudolf had a sense of humor. And he had probably grown accustomed to the artist’s visual wit. Arcimboldo served the Hapsburg family for more than 25 years, creating oddball “composite heads” made of sea creatures, flowers, dinner roasts and other materials