Rome’s talking statues: the original Facebook and Twitter (first part)
by Alberto Manodori Sagredo
Political satire is today’s most successful form of comedy. Comedians – who have depended on gags, witty remarks, and jokes to make the audience laugh since Plautus’s theater in ancient Rome – have discovered that referring to common people’s habits, contradictions, and hypocritical behaviors is not as funny as it used to be. They now prefer to mock the men and women in power, and often use irony – and their right to free speech – to seriously challenge the world they seem to joke about.
While this may seem like a relatively new phenomenon in show business, the impressions, caricatures, and jokes we see on television, online, and in newspaper cartoons actually have a very long history. Political satire, in fact, has existed for as long as there have been opposing parties or dissidents. At the beginning, of course, different media were used: in ancient Rome, for example, the most popular were certain places and monuments, which were used to “broadcast” a message and thus built the reputation of talking, living things.
Statues proved the most effective channel, probably because the human figure carved in stone let readers imagine that verdicts were written by an invisible hand, as if by history itself, in an indefinite moment in time.
In Rome, certain ancient statues – originally meant to adorn the city – were chosen to channel the critical, clandestine voice that echoed people’s thoughts, even those the institutions wished to suppress. These statues talked thanks to signs and scrolls written, usually in verse, by anonymous authors who interpreted the complaints of a people who – despite what politicians believed of hoped – were neither blind nor deaf.
There are six of these so-called “talking statues” in Rome: five are ancient and one is modern. One is at the corner of a building; another one is along a street; a third is next to Campo Vaccino; the fourth is beside a beautiful church; the fifth is in a corner; and the last one is in a niche, in a narrow street leading to the main road that runs through the old part of Rome.
The first and most famous talking statue in Rome is nicknamed “Pasquino”; it was dug out of the ground in one corner of the Stadium of Domitian, where Piazza Navona was built, and kept in the same spot since then. The ancient sports field built by the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty – where the terrible martyrdom of Saint Agnes took place, as commemorated by the beautiful Borromini church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, opposite Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers – was probably decorated by famous sculptures in its time. One of them was a group representing a scene from the “Iliad”, in which the king of Sparta, Menelaus, drags the body of the brave Patroclus away from the battlefield, so that the enemy cannot desecrate it (the same subject represented in one of the sculptures now under the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza della Signoria, Florence).
Pasquino started “talking” in 1501, or at least that is the first record we have of what is now called a “pasquinade”, as documented by chronicler Johann Burchard in his “Liber Notarum”; his first words were a message for Pope Alexander VI, making fun of the Borgias’ coat of arms (which features a bull): “I predicted, oh pope, that you would be a bull; and I predicted, oh bull, that you would become pope”.
Despite papal authorities’ attempts at censorship, over the centuries Pasquino gave an outlet to many anonymous authors – often officially illiterate – as well as to great writers such as Pietro Aretino, Jacopo Sannazaro, and Baldassar Castiglione.
Part of its success was probably due to the fact that it was at the heart of the Parione ‘rione’, where the highest number of antiquarian bookshops, print workshops and writing, publishing, and reading businesses concentrated from the Renaissance to the 1900s. This is where three of the city’s most important libraries still are – Biblioteca Vallicelliana, Angelica, and Casanatense – and where the one belonging to the Collegio Romano (or Pontifical Gregorian University) used to be.
In the reign of writing, no authority could ever suppress the art of thinking and communicating one’s opinion.
Obviously the Pope and his entourage were the most popular target, not for reasons tied to religion or faith – since Pasquino’s quips and verses never even went near dogmas, liturgies or acts of faith – but for the contradictions between their role and their behavior, or for their human flaws and weaknesses.
For example, the great Saint Pius V was mocked for gloating over the persecution of heretics: “Quasi che fosse inverno, / brucia cristiani Pio siccome legna / per avvezzarsi al fuoco dell’Inferno” (literally, “Pius burns Christians like wood, as if it were winter, to get used to the fire in Hell”).
The inflexible Sixtus V – who completely renovated Rome in the short five years of his papacy, strenuously fighting brigands in the region’s countryside and hills – was another of Pasquino’s favorites. The statue, complaining about the fact that the whole city and its surroundings were constantly swept by guards armed with chains and axes, proclaimed, “Lucky me, I’m carved in marble”.
After the election of cardinal Camillo Borghese – who as Paul V, among many other achievements, financed the completion of Saint Peter’s Basilica – Pasquino commented, “After the Carafa, Medici, and Farnese, now it’s time to give our money to the House of Borghese”.
Pope Urban VIII Barberini, who entrusted Bernini with creating the majestic Baldachin in Saint Peter’s Basilica, did not escape Pasquino’s irony: “Urbano VIII dalla barba bella / finito il giubileo, impone la gabella” (“Urban VIII, with his beautiful beard, is ready to collect new taxes as soon as the jubilee is over”).
A play on words lashed the powerful Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, after the death of her brother-in-law Innocent X: “Olim-pia, nunc impia” (Latin for “Once pious, devout, now impius, a sinner”).
The jokes and gibes went on, pope after pope, event after event, until the Capture of Rome. When the Italian Army placed the city under a state of siege, in September 1870, Pasquino left a message for Pope Pius IX on a stoup in Saint Peter’s Basilica: “Santo Padre benedetto, / ci sarebbe un poveretto / che vorrebbe darvi in dono / questo ombrello. È poco buono, / ma non ho nulla di meglio. / Mi direte: ‘A che mi vale?’. / Tuona il nembo, Santo Veglio; / e se cade il temporale?” (“Holy blessed Father, / here is a poor man / who wishes to give you / this umbrella. It’s not very good, / but I’ve got nothing better. / You may ask ‘What use is it to me?’ / Rain clouds are thundering, Old Saint, / what if a storm comes down?”).
Pasquino’s voice never died out, although its resonance may have faded among the competition of modern means of communication.
In 1938, however, his voice could be heard loud and clear when a sign was hung on the statue right before Hitler’s visit, reading, “Povera Roma mia de travertino, / te sei vestita tutta de cartone / pe’ fatte rimira’ da ’n imbianchino / venuto da padrone!” (“My poor Rome, made of travertine / you’ve dressed up in cardboard / to show off for a dauber / who thinks he owns you!”).
Like Pasquino, each of the other talking statues has a name: in this short series of articles you will meet “Marforio”, “Madama Lucrezia”, “Abate Luigi”, “er Babuino”, and finally “er Facchin de la Via Lata”. They talked whenever Pasquino was silenced by placing armed guards at the statue day and night – something that didn’t happen very often, because even the strictest rulers always knew that people need an outlet.
In the direst situations, Pasquino was forced to be quiet – and Marforio stepped in. The statue representing Oceanus, reclining amid the waves, was found in the area of the Forum of Augustus and moved in front of the Mamertine Prison (where it is said that the apostles Peter and Paul were incarcerated before martyrdom). Fearing his verses, the pope had Marforio transferred in front of Saint Mark’s Basilica. Later, the imposing statue was relocated to Piazza del Campidoglio, where it could be guarded more easily.
Finally, in the mid-17th century, Innocent X – a frequent target of pasquinades – had Marforio moved to the courtyard of Palazzo dei Conservatori, where it remains today.
Now definitively silenced, Marforio is still known for the verbal crossfire he entertained with Pasquino in the past, when witty lines could be found on the two statues at dawn; one famous example dates back to 1799, when the French authorities had forbidden the Roman clergy from wearing anything signaling their religion, or the order or congregation they belonged to – such as the black neck scarf that was popular at the time. Marforio thus asked: “Tell me, Pasquino, what is going on this morning: why are you wearing a black scarf? Is there a party somewhere?”; to which Pasquino replied, “You know, they’ve told priests not to wear the black scarf anymore. So I’m wearing it, to give the Roman Republic its extreme unction!”.