The surface of this extraordinary piece of maiolica – a form of tin-glazed earthenware – is skillfully painted with a head composed of interlaced penises, one of them sporting a ring. On the banderole (long scroll) are the words: ‘OGNI HOMO ME GUARDA COME FOSSE UNA TESTA DE CAZI’ (‘every man looks at me as I were a head of dicks’); on the reverse is written '1536 El breve dentro voi legerite Come I guide se intender el vorite’ (‘If you want to understand the meaning, you will be able to read the text like the Jews do’) referring to the fact that the inscription on the scroll is written right to left, like Hebrew. The reverse also bears the painter’s mark ‘FR’ with a pair of scales.
The maiolica painter Francesco ‘Urbini’ was apparently trained in Urbino, but worked in Gubbio and Deruta in the 1530s. The composition is a parody of maiolica dishes bearing portrait heads of named girls, an established maiolica genre sometimes made for young men to give to the objects of their affections. It is a Renaissance joke, reflecting both the sexual explicitness found in the writing of Pietro Aretino and others, and the artistic ideas and interests of Leonardo da Vinci. Art of this type of subject matter has tended not to survive. The bowl prefigures the heads composed of vegetables and other objects which the painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo was to make popular at the court of Rudolf II in Prague from 1562 onwards.
Dish with a Composite Head of Penises
Francesco ‘Urbini’ (active c. 1530–40)
Tin-glazed earthenware Diam. 23.3 cm
Purchased with the assistance of the Art Fund, the V&A Purchase Grant and numerous private donations, 2003