Museums sometimes have a curious – in fact a chaste – way of hiding visible things with words. To see what’s really there, you need to discover the object first, and then read the image caption. You might then realize a funny and interesting difference between the two. This happened when I was last visiting the Department of Decorative Arts of the Louvre museum in Paris.
Amongst the Louvre collection of italian Renaissance earthenware is this fine 16th century plate. At first view, I saw a young woman holding up an odd looking fruit from a basket. But when I looked closer, I saw something which usually appears on Roman objects only : she is holding a male genital. At first I thought I was imagining it – the Louvre being a cultural institution after all – so I checked the caption. It says in French « Les bons fruits » :
« Les bons fruits » means « delicious fruits ». That is a nice periphrasis of what these « fruits » really are. It is plain that the young lady on this plate is holding a penis in her hand, wrapped in a leave (?) that gives it a funny appearance, like a wrapped up sausage. The basket in front of her is full of many other penises. This was the first time I had ever seen a penis on a Renaissance object, without any connection to antique Mythology. Above the image is the inscription « AIBOS FRVTI DONE », which should be Latin and would read without the abbreviations : « Ai bonus fructi done« . If this is correct, a possible translation would be : « Accept (that) I give you good fruit ». The latin word « frvti » – « fruits » already has a double meaning, and the Louvre museum only communicates what is written on the plate.
Then my friend Martin brought up another possibility. The german Fine Art Auctionhouse Hampel in Munich sold in december 2012 a maiolica albarello from Faenza, dating from the end of the 15th century. Even if the datation of the Louvre plate (16th century) is correct, there can be no doubt that these two objects are linked. On the 15th century Faenza jar, the inscription is identical, and the image very similar (the male genitals don’t have leaves wrapped around them).
The catalogue desciption of this jar sold by Hampel Auctionhouse says : « AIBO FRUTI DONE (the good fruit for the woman) ». According to this interpretation, the banner is not written in Latin but in Italian, and « DONE » derives from the Italian word donna = woman (accusative : donne). The wrong spelling (done instead of donne) doesn’t mean that this translation is incorrect. The Hampel catalogue mentions the book of Giovanni Conti, L’arte della Maiolica in Italia, Milan 1973, which might have proposed this translation.
Besides the chastity – or omission – of the Louvre image caption, the museum did not really help me in understanding the meaning of this plate. The influence of Antiquity in italian Renaissance art is ubiquitous, but sexual details like these, without any connection to Roman or Greek Mythology, seem very unusual. What do these « fruits » do on a plate? Was it a mischievous wedding gift from a young woman to her soon-to-be husband? Or is this plate rather an object coming from an italian Renaissance brothel? The Louvre gives no answers to these questions, but considering that the Romans – and Roman women, too – were using many everyday objects with sexual imaging, maybe in Renaissance Italy it was just the same. « I give you good fruit » or, « good fruit for the woman », a everyday object with no other meaning than what it says. If this is correct, these 16th century Italians don’t look so chaste to me any more, and I can easily imagine the surprise – and playful delight – of a woman being given real fruit on the Louvre plate, picking the last apple, the last pear and thus discovering the picture. She might have reacted like me: « Oh, look, the young woman is holding out a fruit! No, wait, WHAT is she holding ? »