To think, that by 1549 when Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-93) was commissioned for his first artwork (stained glass window designs for the Duomo in Milan), Gutenberg’s invention was just shy of its centenary. Seventeen years later, well after that centenary, Arcimboldo paints The Librarian.
But well before Gutenberg and Arcimboldo, the codex form of the book was part of the cultural vernacular. Consider the Roman portrait of this couple, he holding a scroll, she holding a tablet, the forerunner to the codex, the supplanter of the scroll.
Today book artists cite the threat of the book’s demise as inspiration to celebrate the book by transforming it into brush strokes, sculpture, installations, furniture. But has there not always been this loving artistic objectification of the book, a tradition that has its occasional flowerings? It is not too surprising that by 1566 the book as object would be so engrained in culture that its form could be appropriated by Arcimboldo. Certainly Arcimboldo’s art is now well engrained. So much so that his work is being channeled by book writers and artists, as tracked by Michael Lieberman in Book Patrol. One such artist is Andrés Martins de Barros.
Arcimboldo’s librarian is an assemblage of images of the book, not the scroll — a kind of measure of the evolutionary contention of technologies. How curious that if Andrés Martins de Barros were to paint the portrait of a couple like Terentius Neo and his wife today, one might hold a closed book and the other another kind of tablet casting light on their faces and on a stage in the evolution of reading books.