Composite Portraits

One of the best things about teaching students is that they surprise you with new things all the time. Last month, when I was showing some students Renaissance paintings and ceramics (known as Maiolica) in the Ashmolean Museum, I received quite a big surprise.

To the horror of a nearby gallery attendant, my student pointed out this extraordinary plate:


Maiolica plate painted with a head composed of penises.
Francesco Urbini, 23.3 cm diameter, c.1530–37.

The plate was made by the Italian ceramicist Francesco Urbini some time around 1530-1537. Perhaps it might come as a shock to see such sexually explicit imagery in a relatively expensive object made in Italy during the 16th Century. But in fact Italians of that time and place had a taste for sexual humour that can seem quite coarse. In this blog we have encountered some of Pietro Aretino’s beautiful letters. But Aretino was also known in his day for writing popular and influential works of humorous pornographic poetry.

The plate’s joke seems to work something like this. Once the plate is fully revealed (perhaps when you finish your food?), you encounter an image of a face composed of penises, and a motto written backwards. If you read the words backwards you get the punchline of the otherwise visual joke: ‘OGNI HOMO ME GUARDA COME FOSSE UNA TESTA DE CAZI’ (every man looks at me as if I were a head of dicks). On the back of the plate there are instructions designed to make sure that you don’t miss the joke: ‘El breve dentro voi legerite Come i giudei se intender el vorite’ (If you want to understand the meaning, you will be able to read the text like the Jews do).

The brand of sexual humour exemplified by this plate was pretty common at the time. But what are we to make of the unusual, imaginative execution of the portrait itself? The most obvious parallel is to be found in the portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 – July 11, 1593), who worked for the Habsburg family in Vienna and Prague for much of his career. Like Urbini, Arcimboldo made composite portraits in which the elements making up the face were linked by an overarching theme, such as fire, scholarship or the seasons:

Arcimboldo, The Fire, Oil on Wood, 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Austria

The Librarian, 1566, oil on canvas, Skokloster Castle, Sweden

Spring, 1573, oil on canvas, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

There has been some debate about the source of Arcimboldo’s inspiration. Was he an artistic eccentric, making witty portraits for his patrons? Or was he perhaps mentally unwell? The existence of a plate like the one to be found in the Ashmolean suggests that perhaps Arcimboldo’s contemporaries were at least somewhat familiar with the humorous, allegorical portraits that he made. Indeed, the Ahsmolean plate is far less serious – and much ruder – than any of Arcimboldo’s portraits.

A Letter from Aretino to Michelangelo, September 1537: ‘The World has Many Kings but only one Michelangelo’

I am not a historian of the Renaissance, but this year I am teaching a ‘special subject’ (based on lots of original documents and objects from the time) about the Renaissance in Florence and Venice, 1475-1525. When reading the letters written on the subject of painting and sculpture by Pietro Aretino I have, as I mentioned in my last post, been struck by his attempts to paint pictures in the minds of his readers with words.  In my last post I gave an example of Aretino’s attempt to paint a scene in Titian’s mind (perhaps to encourage Titian to paint something similar with brushes, paints and canvas?).  Here, I want to share with you an amazingly bold letter in which Aretino sought to influence Michelangelo‘s composition of his famous Last Judgment, which Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel (a chapel in the Pope’s palace in Rome) over the years 1536-1541.  Michelangelo must have been some way along with the work when he received Aretino’s letter of September 1537.

At the opening of the letter Aretino praises Michelanelo for his mastery of outlines and it is fascinating that he seems more preoccupied here with the placement of figures in the scene than in his later letter to Titian, which focuses on colour. Aretino wrote to Michelanelo long before anyone knew what the final painting would look like. But in this letter he seems to be trying to put a scene into Michelangelo’s mind, as if to anticipate or inspire the work. What follows is an astonishingly powerful word picture, a piece of preemptive ekphrasis:

Venice, September 1537:

‘I see Antichrist in the midst of the rabble, with an appearance only conceivable by you. I see terror on the faces of all the living, I see the signs of the impending extinction of the sun, the moon and the stars.  I see, as it were breathing their last, the elements of fire, air, earth and water. I see Nature standing there to one side, full of terror, shrunken and barren in the decrepitude of old age. I see Time, withered and trembling, who is near to his end and seated upon a dry tree-trunk. And while I hear the trumpets of the angels setting all hearts astir, I see Life and Death in fearsome confusion, as the former exerts himself to the utmost in an effort to raise the dead, while the latter goes about striking down the living. I see Hope and Despair guiding the ranks of the good and the throng of evil-doers. I see the amphitheatre of the clouds illuminated by the rays which stream from the pure fires of Heaven and on which Christ sits enthroned among His legions, encircled by splendours and terrors. I see His countenance refulgent with brightness, and as it blazes with flames of sweet and terrible light it fills the children of good with joy and those of evil with fear.’

Aretino, Selected Letters (translated by George Bull) (1976), pp. 110-111

How do you think Aretino did?  We can always compare this extract from his letter (which goes on a bit longer) to Michelangelo’s own completed fresco:

A Letter from Aretino to Titian, May 1544

People often assume that painting and poetry serve completely different artistic purposes; you represent static moments in time with images and tell narrative stories with words. However, the idea that you need images in order to paint is quite a modern one. In the ancient world and Renaissance poets were expected to be able to paint with the words.  Meanwhile, painters often aimed to tell narratives in painting. This is summed up by the Latin expression ‘ut pictura poesis‘, taken from Horace’s Ars Poetica. Poets often tried to evoke painting in their poetry, and this sort of poetry is known as ‘ekphrasis‘.

This is an extract from a letter written by the Italian poet Pietro Aretino to his dear friend the artist Tiziano Vecelli,  better known as ‘Titian‘. In the letter Aretino beautifully describes the colours that he saw in the sky when he one day looked out on to Venice’s Grand Canal. You can even pick out in Aretino’s words a visual stylistic sensibility that is close to Titian’s own. That is, he takes great interest in the effects of colour.

Venice, May 1544:

‘As I am describing it, see first the buildings which appeared to be artificial though made of real stone.  And then look at the air itself, which I perceived to be pure and lively in some places, and in others turbid and dull.  Also consider my wonder at the clouds made up of condensed moisture; in the principal vista they were partly near the roofs of the buildings, and partly on the horizon, while to the right all was in a confused shading of greyish black.  I was awestruck by the variety of colours they displayed: the nearest glowed with the flames of the sun’s fire; the furthest were blushing with the brightness of partially burned vermilion.  Oh, how beautiful were the strokes with which Nature’s brushes pushed the air back at this point, separating it from the palaces in the way that Titian does when painting his landscapes!’

Aretino, Selected Letters (translated by George Bull) (1976), pp. 225-6.