Museums sometimes have a curious – a chaste – way of hiding visible things with words. To see what’s really there, look at the object first, then read the image caption. Now, you might notice a funny and interesting difference between the two. This happened when I visited the Department of Decorative Arts of the Louvre museum in Paris.
Amongst the Louvre collection of Italian Renaissance earthenware is this fine 16th century decorative « denti di lupo » plate. At first, I saw a young woman holding an odd looking fruit picked up from – or about to (re)place it in – a basket. But when looking closer, I recognized something that usually appears on antique Roman objects only : she was holding no fruit, but a male genital. A little surprised, the Louvre being a cultural institution open to innocent children and all, 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 woman is holding a penis in her hand, wrapped in a leave (?) that gives it a funny appearance, like a hot dog (no word play intended). The basket in front of her is full of penises. It was the first time I had seen a penis on a Renaissance object without any apparent connection to Greek or Roman mythology. Above the image is the apparently Latin inscription « AIBOS FRVTI DONE » that might 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 one of my friends came up with a new hypothesis. German Fine Art Auctionhouse Hampel in Munich sold in december 2012 a maiolica albarello from Faenza dating from the end of the 15th century. There can be no doubt that these two objects are linked. The inscription of the plate and the jar is identical, and the image very similar, only the penises aren’t wrapped in leaves.
The catalogue desciption of this jar sold by Hampel Auctionhouse reads: « AIBO FRUTI DONE (the good fruit for the woman) ». According to this, the inscription is not Latin but Italian, and « DONE » derives from the Italian word donna = woman (accusative: donne). The incorrect spelling doesn’t mean that this translation is incorrect. The Hampel catalogue mentions L’arte della Maiolica in Italia (1973) by Giovanni Conti that might contain this translation.
Beside the « chastity » of the Louvre image caption, it did not help me understand the meaning of this plate. The influence of Antiquity in Italian Renaissance art is ubiquitous, but sexual details like these, without any apparent connection to Roman or Greek Mythology, seem 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 something connected to a brothel? Considering that the Romans – and Roman women, too – were using various everyday objects with images connected to sexuality, maybe Renaissance Italy was just the same. « I give you good fruit », or « good fruit for the woman », would then be an everyday object with no other meaning than what it says. If this is correct, I can imagine the surprise – and playful delight? – of a woman being presented real fruit on the Louvre earthenware plate and, picking the last apple or the last pear, discovers the picture: « Oh, the young woman is holding a fruit – no, WHAT is she holding ? »