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.