IT started as a joke, but at £240,000, it is now one of the most important pieces of ceramics to change hands in recent years. One of the most extraordinary pieces of maiolica in existence, the phallic plate, pictured right, whose purchase grant of £100,000 is the highest ever given by the National Art Collections Fund for a piece of ceramics, dates to about 1536 and is attributed to Francisco Urbino, one of the leading maiolica painters of the period.
The plate, which pre-figures the more celebrated compositional heads in fruit and vegetables by Arcimboldo, parodies bella donna dishes, bearing portrait heads of girls and inscriptions of the type Francesca bella. On the banderole, reading right to left, is the inscription OGNI HOMO ME GUARDA COME FOSSE UNA TESTA DE CAZI (every man looks at me as if I were a head of dicks). This is written back to front as explained by the verse inscription on the reverse 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; i.e., like Hebrew, right to left).
According to experts at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where it will now go on display, the exact history of the plate is not known. However, there is a surviving close parallel to it – a drawing (now in a private collection but formerly belonging to Sir Thomas Lawrence), once attributed to Leonardo, which has recently been attributed by Catherine Monbeig Goguel to Francesco Salviati; it does not seem to be the direct source for the plate, but the resemblances are significant, and the maiolica painter is likely to have worked from a related drawing.
The plate is first recorded in a sale in Paris in 1855 and was subsequently in the Le Carpentier collection and after World War II in the musée d’amour of the French writer Roger Peyrefitte. It was sold in 1977 and acquired by Carlo De Carlo of Florence. It then sold after his death at Semenzato, Venice, on December 15, 2001, and was bought by Rainer Zietz of London and Alain Moatti of Paris for a hammer price of Li470m, then £154,100. It has full export clearance from Italy.
The Ashmolean holds a collection of Italian maiolica of international importance (including a bella donna dish of the type parodied here). An additional grant of £60,000 came from the Resource Purchase Grant Fund and the Ashmolean has managed to raise the balance with help from private donations.