15 January 2010

"The Librarian"

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was a 16th century painter best known for his use of a collection of objects to portray a human face.  The subject, like the painter, was an employee of the Habsburgs:
'Wolfgang Lazius' is the Latinized name of Wolfgang Laz (1514-1565), an Austrian physician-cum-cartographer/historian in the employ of the Hapsburgs. You will note that Arcimboldo has painted the librarian's paper "fingers" clutching a stack of books acquisitively. Over 400 years later, Lazius still hasn't been able to shake the reputation that he obtained records by whatever means necessary ... including theft.
Here are the composite elements:
His hair is shaped by the open pages of a book; his nose by a book’s spine; his eyes by spectacles; and his beard and moustache by the bunched tails of several pine martens – commonly used by Renaissance librarians to wipe the dust from ancient vellum manuscripts.
Here is one interpretation of the painting:
The Librarian (ca. 1566) is a well-known painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a court artist for the Habsburg emperors Ferdinand I, Maximilian II, and Rudolf II. Arcimboldo's "composite portrait" of a librarian cleverly assembled from a pile of books has been interpreted narrowly as a parody of librarianship and of intellectualism in general, due in part to Sven Alfons's identification of the librarian as the court historiographer, Wolfgang Lazius. This reevaluation of The Librarian attempts to broaden the conventional view held by art historians and librarians. Considered within the context of late Renaissance book culture (particularly, Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools), Arcimboldo's humor takes on a new signification. The Librarian may have targeted not those who love learning but rather materialistic book collectors more interested in acquiring books than in reading them.
The painting originally hung in the Kunstkammer of Maximilian I.
The Kunstkammer of the Habsburg rulers in Prague was a suite of rooms containing the royal collections of art and other objects - in effect a prototype of the modern musuem, although its principles of organisation were somewhat different. The collection built up by Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II contained not only pictures and sculptures but also all kinds of natural “wonders” and curiosities, such as shells from the Indies and horns of the narwhal, bought and sold at the time as unicorn’s horns. A repository of miracles of nature as well as the most ingenious works of man, the Kunstkammer was in toto a demonstration of the Holy Roman Emperor’s mastery of all facets of the known world, the visible embodiment of his all-encompassing power and wisdom.
TYWKIWDBI has, of course, a particular affection for Kunstkammers and other cabinets of curiosities, as we indicate in our byline.


  1. What the hell is that beard made of?

  2. Isn't it obvious, romney? Those are the bunched tails of pine martens. (faceslap). Everyone uses them to wipe the dust from ancient vellum manuscripts. I keep mine right over there on the shelf.

    Seriously, thank you for the question. It sent me off on a trail of links today that led to a much greater insight regarding the painting. I wound up expanding the discussion from one sentence to several extended paragraphs; it's much more informative now.


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