Rome’s Talking Statues

One of Rome's talking statues, Il Pasquino

Talking Statue Il Pasquino

There is one indisputable fact — you cannot silence the Vox Popoli, the Voice of the People. It may take some time but, whether you are a king, a tyrant, a pope or a president, sooner or later the people will make their views known, whether you like it or not. Muzzle them, and they will find another way to speak. The citizens of 15th century Rome, for example, did just that, expressing their political opinions and dissatisfaction with the Pope/government’s abuse of power via “talking statues” or Pasquinos.

There are six such “talking statues” in the heart of Rome. The most famous is Pasquino, a 3rd century BCE statue located near Piazza Navona. Pasquino was notorious in the 16th through the 19th centuries as the mouthpiece of the witty oppressed who covered him with satirical verses, insults, and political commentary.

Marforio, in the Palazzo Nuovo of the Capitoline Museums

Statue of Marforio, Rome

In Italian, these comments are known as “Pasquinos.” (The English words “pasquinade” and “pasquil,” meaning “anonymous lampoon in verse or prose,” originated here.) Subsequently, the word came to mean any satirical, political or ecclesiastical lampoon. According to some legends, the name originated from a tailor living in the district who excelled at writing satirical verses; another says that the name related to a character in a short story by Boccaccio.

The Popes were the subjects of many of the pasquinades.  One poem on Pasquino criticized Pope Nicholas V (1447-55) stating, “Since Nicholas became Pope and murderer, blood flows in Rome, but there is no wine.” Another lampooned Pope Urban VIII Barberini (1623-44) in Latin, “What the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.”

The Popes fought to prevent notes from being posted, even stationing guards around Pasquino. Pope Hadrian VI (1521-23) was desperate enough to want to throw Pasquino in the river but changed his mind when his advisors reminded him that the people would retaliate further. Pope Benedict XIII issued an edict threatening to execute anyone caught posting the rhymes. Ironically, very often the authors were actually members of the Vatican who wanted to slander their colleagues.

Guards and threats did not stop political dissidence. Instead, when it became difficult to use Pasquino, several other statues became the bearers of messages. The second statue, Marforio, served as a sort of “debating partner,” exchanging dialogue with Pasquino. One famous exchange between the two statues targeted  Napoleon for plundering Rome’s art after conquering the city.

Rome's Talking Statue, Madama Lucrezia

Madama Lucrezia, Rome

Marforio: “E vero che I francesi sono tutti ladri?” (is it true that all Frenchmen are thieves?)

Pasquino: “Tutti no, ma BonaParte.” (Not all but a good part – a play on words in Roman dialect of Napoleon’s family name).

After the unification of Italy, the practice tapered off until Hitler visited Rome in World War II. At that time, a sign hung on Pasquino proclaimed “My poor Rome, made of travertine. You are dressed up in cardboard to show off for a dauber who thinks he owns you” (“Povera Roma mia di travertine/ Te sei vestita tutta di cartone pe’ fatte rimira’ d’ n imbinachino, venuto da padrone!”)

Today, Pasquino is still used to post criticism and social commentary but the messages appear on a bulletin board to the right of the statue.

THE TALKING STATUES

There are six “talking statues” in Rome, known collectively as “Il Congresso degli Arguti” or “The Shrewd Congress.” Most of them stand in the shadow of buildings, meaning that you can photograph them at any time of the day.

The first and most famous is PASQUINO, a 3rd century BCE, battered statue believed to be Melanus, the mythical king of Sparta, which gave its name to this practice. Found in Piazza Navona in 1501, the statue stands on the Piazza del Pasquino near Palazzo Braschi.

MARFORIO is a large 1st century BCE Roman marble statue of a reclining river-god. Today, Marforio resides in the courtyard of the Palazzo Nuovo in the Capitoline Museums. The placards left on Marforio often responded to the witticisms on Pasquino. The name Marforio is believed to come from “Mare in Foro” (Sea in the Forum) or perhaps from the Marfuoli family who lived near where the statue was found.

One of Rome's talking statues, Il Babuino

Fontana del Babuino, Rome

Across the piazza from Marforio’s home on the Campidoglio is MADAMA LUCREZIA, the name given to the head of a 10-foot high statue that might have come from the Temple to the Egyptian goddess, Isis.

The enormous marble bust sits on the corner of Piazza San Marco to the left of the eponymous Basilica. The name “Madama Lucrezia” refers to a 15th-century noblewoman, Lucrezia D’Alaina, mistress of the married king of Naples, Alfonso of Aragon. Lucrezia came to Rome to ask the Pope to let the King divorce. He denied her request. When the King died the following year, Lucrezia moved to this neighborhood in Rome. She is the only woman among the talking statues.

IL BABUINO is a badly damaged depiction of Silenus, the drunken companion of Dionysus, a half man, half goat character from Roman mythology. The Romans renamed it “Babuino” meaning baboon because they thought it was ugly. The street on which it stands is now known as Via del Babuino. The statue is to the left of the Café Canova-Tadolini.

Rome's talking Statue, Abate Luigi

Abate Luigi, Rome

ABATE LUIGI stands around the left side of the main façade of the Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle on Piazza Vidoni. It consists of a headless statue portraying the body of an unidentified Roman senator from the late Imperial era, draped in a toga and holding a scroll. The nickname, Abate Luigi, might be a reference to an abbot of the church. An inscription in Italian on the plinth reads:

“I was a citizen of Ancient Rome
Now all call me Abbot Louis
Along with Marforio and Pasquino, I conquer
Eternal fame for Urban Satire
I was insulted, disgraced and buried
But here I have found new life and security.

The newest of Rome's talking statues, Il Facchino

Il Facchino, Rome

IL FACCHINO is a statue of a water seller whose barrel serves as a fountain. It dates to 1580 and depicts an “acquarolo,” a man wearing a cap and sleeved shirt, carrying a barrel. Before the Popes repaired the aqueducts (which the Barbarians destroyed), the acquarolo would collect water in these barrels from the Tiber to sell to the local population.  The statue (which some think is Martin Luther) was damaged by cobblestones lobbed at its face. Il Facchino stands on the north side of Via Lata near the intersection of Via del Corso.

In days gone by, before the advent of newspapers and social media, the talking statues of Rome provided an interesting reminder that the Vox Populi – the voice of the people – cannot be silenced.

For more photographs of Rome visit www.allegriaphotos.com.

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2 thoughts on “Rome’s Talking Statues

  1. James Bruckman

    Great story. I suspect these are the kind of stories that will be in your book. They will bring history and life to the photographs

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