Beginning the second series of the gift, “Air” begins a new way of creating composite portraits: rather than utilizing produce and flora like Four Seasons, Arcimboldo here uses animals associated with each element to craft his figures. “Air," then, is composed of various birds, from the basic chicken to the more elaborate peacock and parakeet. Likely based on intricate nature studies Arcimboldo previously completed, the birds of "Air" present a high level of accuracy and attention to detail while also enlivening the animals in a way that his studies had just begun to capture. This is perhaps one of the most disconcerting portraits in Arcimboldo’s series, in part due to the overwhelming feeling of being watched brought on by the many eyes peering out, particularly in the head. The portrait’s hair is created using many tightly-packed birds, none of whom can be properly identified due to the way in which they all fight for prominence. However, some more important ones can be recognized. The most prominent bird is the peacock, which makes up the entirety of the portrait’s body with its full spread and elegant plumage. The peacock was a symbol commonly used by the Hapsburg Dynasty, of which Arcimboldo’s patron Maximillian II was a member. Their other common bird symbol, the eagle, can be found peering out from behind the peacock’s feathers at the bottom right of the painting (note 1).
Within the Four Elements series, Arcimboldo includes various references and visual symbols to the Hapsburg dynasty and Maximilian II, suggesting that as a series the composite portraits are meant to assert the emperor’s dynasty and power over the elements. As these paintings were completed after Maximilian's ascendancy to head of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1564, whereas the Four Seasons were completed prior to this event in 1563, perhaps this more overt heraldic and glorifying references can be attributed to Maximilian's elevated status from heir to the throne to holder of it. As the ruler of an empire, the overt adoration and attention to symbolic representations of his house now make more sense and become more obvious in their representions.
When depicted with its complement in the Four Seasons, "Air" is paired with "Spring." Air helps to embody the lightness of the season, and the chirping of birds can be seen as a sign that spring is on its way. The age of the figures depicted also complement each other: where "Spring" is a beautiful young woman, "Air" can be read as a young man with a fashionable beard.
note 1. Fonteo, in a note to his poem that accompanied the gift of both series to Maximilian II, made reference to the peacock and eagle being of the House of Austria. For the original latin piece of the poem, see Kaufmann, Thomas D. "Metamorphoses of Nature." The Mastery of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993. 100-35. Print.