So, placed in a central and prestigious location, there can be no doubt that the mural was intended for a wide audience. But what of its meaning? The fact that there are so many phalluses on display would lead one, with a modern perspective, to presume some erotic connotation. Attitudes in the Middle Ages though would not have been the same: “this was in the days before the fig leaf or the cleverly strategically placed veil of linen covering the nude genitalia in paintings, – laughs Ferzoco – The nude image was not seen to be dirty, and in the case of public art nor would it have been perceived necessarily as erotic. It would have been seen simply as a depiction of nakedness and nothing else”.
Depicting the un-natural
Discounting the idea that it’s simply pornography, the next obvious leap is to presume that it’s a fertility symbol, surely? “The people who have said that it’s a fertility symbol have made a natural and understandable leap from the images of the phallus that one can see in the tree, and the fact that since Roman and even Etruscan times, the phallus was used as a symbol for good luck and fertility”, says Ferzoco, before discounting the theory. “The fact of the matter is that there is, with regard to the phalluses on display in this painting, nothing whatsoever to do with fertility. It’s one thing to have a symbol of a phallus on its own. That can stand for good luck, fertility, what have you. It’s another to put it in a different context, one in which it’s seen to be quite literally growing on a tree. The Medieval culture, more than ours, was one that was extremely sensitive to what was perceived as the goodness of nature, the goodness of what is natural, and they would have put two and two together in a way which involved seeing this particular tree bearing fruit that is not natural fruit. Those two elements of the equation would have added up to be something which is not natural and hence not good.”
While the phalluses in the tree are, by the context, strange and shocking, there are other phalluses in the painting which add currency to Ferzoco’s hypothesis that this is anything but a mural celebrating fecundity. “We have an image of two women who appear to be locked in serious combat over one of these phalluses, so this supposed fertility symbol that ought to bring life and goodness is in fact bringing strife to the people fighting over it. More importantly, there is a woman on the left side of the mural, standing in what I call her ‘Lady Di’ pose, standing quite demurely, until you realise that she’s being sodomised by one of these phalluses. You can’t get pregnant by sodomy – it’s the ultimate in non-fertility. There’s something going on in the mural that subverts notions of fertility.”
But why would one display such an extravagant, and no doubt expensive, symbol of non-fertility in such a central place? What message is it conveying? “The key to that subversion – according to Ferzoco – is shown with the symbol of one of the two competing political factions of the time, which is displayed prominently in the mural. This is the Eagle, a symbol of the Ghibelline party. The juxtaposition of this party symbol along with another symbol being used unnaturally, in a non-fertile way is meant to create in the viewer a kind of relationship between what is unnatural or not good on the one hand and the Ghibelline party on the other. It makes even more sense when you consider that during almost all of its history as an independent city republic, Massa Marittima was controlled by the anti-Ghibelline Guelph party.”
The Guelph-Ghibelline conflict that raged through Germany and Italy during this period, at its simplest could be described as an ongoing conflict between the Papacy (the Guelph faction) and the Holy Roman Emperor (Ghibelline faction), though in reality the conflict had many different dimensions with local rivalries and strategic concerns playing an important role. So, in the context of Massa Marittima, controlled by the pro-papacy Guelphs, the mural becomes an example of explicit political art. It’s a warning as to what Ghibelline control of the town may bring.
While, as mentioned previously, the depiction of the phallus in art was not uncommon in medieval art, the depiction of a large or erect phallus, as portrayed in the Massa Marittima mural is extremely rare. In fact, one of the only other examples Ferzoco has found exists in Milan, and is again in a political context: “There is a sculpture that was placed over one of the gateways of Milan in the late 12th century. Over the years, this sculpture became known in Italian as La Donna Impudica, a dirty woman in the sexual sense. She was also commonly thought to represent the Holy Roman Empress. This was extremely significant. The image is what appears to be a woman wearing a toga, parting her robes and showing, at first glance, that she is not really a she and has a large phallus. On closer inspection, it may well be the case that this is not a phallus but something like a key or a comb – it requires more research. What is clear and beyond doubt though is that the first reaction one has on seeing this is that there is a large publicly displayed phallus. What is important for the Massa Marittima mural is that this statue links a depiction of the phallus with the Holy Roman Empress, and the Holy Roman Empress is, to use American parlance, the first lady of the Ghibelline faction as they were headed by the Holy Roman Emperor. It’s public, it’s political and it’s meant to be derogatory. The Milanese placed this above one of the gates of the town immediately after the Ghibelline faction had been chased out by a Guelph faction. It’s all there together, the link between the public, the political, the phallus, the Ghibellines and insult.”
The fate of political art
Was this kind of political painting popular during the period? Do we have other examples that would back up Ferzoco’s theory? In terms of surviving paintings, unfortunately no. This, though, in itself, doesn’t weaken the argument. “This is part of what is fascinating and extremely important about the Massa Marittima mural” enthuses Ferzoco. “Take current day Bologna, where there has recently been an election. There may be election posters still up around the city, but they’re no longer in pristine condition. They will have been covered up or defaced, or soon will be. It’s the nature of political art that it be temporary. We have documentary evidence, written descriptions of art that was intended for a political use throughout this period. We have a strong feeling that the walls of almost all these city republics would have been liberally decorated with short-term political paintings. Much of the politics involved would have been more precise, dealing with criminals. It would have been the equivalent of the ‘wanted’ posters. It would have been quite common, near the gates of the town, for enemies of the city republic to have their likenesses painted so that, if people saw them they could recognise them and apprehend them. We know that this kind of political, or politically motivated, art was extremely common, but precisely because they are political and politically related, they didn’t last. Sooner or later the political impulse which gave rise to the creation of these images would disappear and the images would thus very soon become irrelevant.”