Dish with a composite head of penises

Ashmolean Museum

Dish with a composite head of penises

(c) Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Date: 1536 
Artist: Probably Francesco Urbini (active 1530-1536)
Country of origin: Possibly Gubbio, Italy
Accession number: WA2003.136
Location: Floor 2, Arts of the Renaissance Gallery (56)

This unique ceramic dish shows a human head composed of penises. The earring and hairband are traditionally feminine accessories, but the earring also symbolises those groups of people considered to be outsiders during the Renaissance, such as Jewish people and slaves. The inscription written in Italian on the scroll should be read right to left, like Hebrew; it translates as: “Every man looks at me as if I were a head of dicks”. The insult ‘dickhead’ refers to a stupid or weak‐headed man, who thinks with his penis rather than his brain. The dish’s sexual ambiguity, social satire and, if the penises are interpreted as circumcised, its anti‐Semitic overtones differ from other ‘Bella Donna’ dishes, where graceful women’s portraits are usually depicted.  The highly unusual subject matter appears to have been inspired by a lost drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Similar composite heads made of penises are found on the reverse of a portrait medal of Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) and in a drawing attributed to Francesco Salviati (1510-1563). There are also some poetic references in satirical sonnets. The design later inspired artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526 or 1527-1593), whose paintings of composite heads made of vegetables, fruit and flowers became popular with the court of Rudolf II (1552-1612) in Prague. 

Pictorial ceramics became highly valued as a fine art in renaissance Italy as it involved skilfully painting with coloured oxides on a white tin oxide surface, which was then fired in a kiln. Tin-glazed earthenware, as this technique is known, was first introduced into Spain by the Moors before it spread to Italy where it became known as maiolica. There are still large numbers of maiolica pottery workshops in Spain, Portugal, Italy and France, which use the same techniques and manufacturing processes today.

Barbara Diaz-Navarro

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