Just as it is difficult to understand how ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the depiction of the phallus, so there are challenges to interpreting the meaning behind a remarkable example of Renaissance earthenware: a shallow maiolica dish on which is depicted the head of (most likely) a woman composed entirely of penises. The dish is dated 1536 and is labelled with the mark and initials of Francesco Urbini. The inventiveness of the image (for example, the pierced penis forming the earring) is reminiscent of the later sixteenth-century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose speciality was the portrait composed of objects such as fruit, vegetables, fish and books.
A scroll accompanies the head, but at first glance the text is unintelligible. However, an inscription on the reverse of the plate provides the key to deciphering it: ‘El breve dentro voi legerite Come i giudei se intender el vorite’ (‘Read the text like the Jews if you want to understand its meaning’). Like Hebrew, the inscription needs to be read from right to left. The text is thus: ‘OGNI HOMO ME GUARDA COME FOSSE UNA TESTA DE CAZI’ (‘every man looks at me as if I were a head of dicks’).
Even with an understanding of the inscription the intended meaning of the image remains obscure. Whether the artist had a specific individual in mind, whether this is simply playful grotesquery, whether the dish was regarded as humorous or obscene, whether indeed food was ever served off it—all these remain unanswerable questions. If nothing else the dish is evidence that the modern Italian insult of ‘testa di cazzo’, and its direct English equivalent of ‘dickhead’, have long been in existence.