With the exception of a large group of festival costume studies in the Uffizi and a series of thirteen drawings on the process of silk manufacture in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, drawings by Arcimboldo are extremely rare. This fascinating drawing has recently been attributed to Arcimboldo, and indeed the fanciful subject is typical of the artist’s imaginative compositions, as is the slightly naive quality of the draughtsmanship and the loose application of wash. The same characteristics, as well as the figure type of the woman at the window, are to be found in the sericulture drawings by the artist in Boston, which can be dated to c.1586. Despite the scarcity of directly comparable examples among the handful of autograph drawings by the artist, the fine quality of the draughtsmanship of the present sheet would seem to favour an attribution in full to Arcimboldo.
The subject of this unusual - and distinctly Arcimboldesque - drawing appears to be an allegory of mortality. The skeletal figure of Death is seen climbing a ladder into the window of a house that takes the form of a head, while a woman – perhaps representing the soul - opens another window to escape. A similar subject appears in a slightly later anonymous woodcut illustration in Johannes David’s Veridicus Christianus, published by the Plantin press in Antwerp in 1601. The woodcut, which is entitled Adspectus Incauti Dispendium, depicts a house in the shape of a head, with a skeleton climbing up a ladder through a window, and is accompanied by captions in Latin, Flemish and French. While the composition of theVeridicus Christianus woodcut is different from that of the present sheet, its iconography may have been derived from an earlier invention, such as this drawing. Although the present sheet is indented for transfer, no related print is known.