by Alberto Manodori Sagredo
There are six talking statues in Rome. After introducing you to Pasquino and Marforio, we are now ready to tell you about the other four: Madama Lucrezia, Abate Luigi, Er Babuino, and Er Facchino de la Via Lata.
Among the many male talking statues – Pasquino, Marforio, Er Babuino, Abate Luigi, and Er Facchin de la Via Lata – there is only one female: Madama Lucrezia.
The large-scale marble bust – which used to be part of a colossal statue representing the Egyptian goddess Isis – can still be seen in the square between Palazzo Venezia and Saint Mark’s Basilica.
Her most famous pasquinade dates back to when the French soldiers overturned her to destroy her at last, and found a writing on the back that read, “I can’t stand you any longer!”
The statue was named after Lucrezia D’Alagna, the lover of Alfonso d’Aragona, King of Naples: once the king died, she took refuge in Rome and moved into a nearby palace; she was buried in the church of Saint Mary above Minerva.
The statue is mentioned in one of the most famous sonnets by Rome’s great poet, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, dedicated to a bizarre nighttime misadventure.
In the past, Madama Lucrezia always presided over the so-called Ballo dei Guitti, a sort of carnival attended by the poorer classes of Rome on May 1st: the statue was decorated with necklaces made of garlic and onion, and its face was painted red. The famous Jesuit scientist Athanasius Kircher – who was an accomplished astronomer, philologist, physicist, and optician, as well as the collector of Rome’s most beautiful Chamber of Wonders inside the Collegio Romano – once voiced her thoughts, writing, “There is only half of me left, and they paint my face red: my name is Lucrezia, and I am so pleased to have a little rouge, so I can look like a young bride”.
Before jumping into the fun and starting to dance, every couple at the ball had to first pay homage to the statue of Madama Lucrezia and take a bow.
Abate Luigi (literally, “Louis the Abbot”) is the statue of an ancient Roman, found during the excavation of the nearby Palazzo Vidoni’s foundations (now at the beginning of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, after Largo Argentina). It owes its name to the similarity between its long, draping toga and the ecclesiastical habit of men that led a pious, cloistered life (whether they had taken ordination or not).
For a long time, it was placed inside a niche in Palazzo Vidoni; then, in 1924, it was moved to the left side of the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, where the first act of “Tosca” is set.
On the statue’s base, a modern epigraph reads, “Fui dell’antica Roma un cittadino / ora Abate Luigi ognun mi chiama. / Conquistai con Marforio e con Pasquino / nelle satire urbane eterna fama. / Ebbi offese, disgrazie e sepoltura / ma qui ritrovai vita novella e alfin sicura” (“I was a citizen of ancient Rome / and now everyone knows me as Abate Luigi. / I gained eternal fame in urban satires / with Marforio and Pasquino. / After injuries, accidents, and burial / here I found a new life and am finally safe”).
Unfortunately, the poor abbot is far from safe: after its original marble head was stolen, all the successive copies that Comune di Roma had made to replace it have been taken by thieves as well.
Thus Abate Luigi exclaims, in perfect Roman dialect, “O tu che m’hai rubbato la capoccia, / vedi d’ariportalla immantinente / sinnò, voi véde?, come fusse gnente / me mànneno ar governo. E ciò me scoccia!” (“To the person who stole my head: / you better bring it back immediately / else, you’ll see, just like that / they’ll give me a position in the government. And I’d find that very annoying!”).
In 1927, the Roman writer Ermanno Ponti hoped the Babuino (“baboon”) statue could soon return to the street that for centuries has been named after it. It had been taken in the 1870s to the courtyard of Palazzo Cerasi, where it reclined on one elbow, like a Roman on his couch, in front of a vat where fresh water gushed constantly, between Via del Babuino and Via dei Greci, near the Orthodox church of Sant’Atanasio.
Today, Ponti’s wish has come true and Er Babuino is back where it had been placed since the 1500s. It is said that, in the late 16th century, Cardinal Dezza passed in front of him every day, taking his hat off and saluting the ancient statue – which he believed represented Saint Jerome, naked and covered in moss like when he lived as a hermit in the Holy Land.
Er Babuino, in fact, is a statue of Silenus, a companion to Dionysus, the god of wine and religious ecstasy.
Er Facchino de la Via Lata
Finally, we come to the sixth and last talking statue: Er Facchino de la Via Lata (literally, “The Porter of Via Lata”, now Via del Corso). It was made in 1580 for Rome’s Corporazione degli Acquaroli, that is the guild of the men who went door-by-door selling drinkable water, taken from the many aqueducts built by the Romans and renovated by the Popes.
The statue was part of a small fountain placed in a niche of Palazzo De Carolis Simonetti, which faced Via del Corso (also known as Via Lata) opposite the Church of San Marcello (where the body of former tribune Cola di Rienzo hung for three days after his death). The fountain quenched the thirst of all passersby, just like it does today – although it has been moved a few meters away, on a side street. A popular rumor, which convinced even Vanvitelli in 1751, attributed the statue to Michelangelo; in reality it was made by Iacopo Del Conte, who originally had placed it on his home’s façade.
Some even say they see in the Facchino the face of Martin Luther, debasing himself by serving water to Rome, but the statue was simply meant to represent a man with work clothes and a hat on, holding a small barrel from which water gushes out into a small, marble basin.
There used to be an inscription on the statue, which read, “To Abbondio Rizio, crowned on the street, incredibly talented in tying up burdens. He could carry as much as he wanted, lived as long as he could, but one day, with one barrel of wine on his shoulders and one inside him, reluctantly, he died”.
Other talking statues can be found in cities all over Italy, and especially in the former capitals of pre-unification states: Naples, Palermo, Florence, Milan, Turin, and Venice. Many other cities in Europe also have their own talking statues. Their voice abated as newspapers gained popularity, lessened even more in the 1900s when free radios were born… and now is at its weakest, with television and the Internet holding everyone captive.
But despite how times have changed, these statues still have something to say – and they keep saying it (much to tourists’ surprise, as they walk to and from Piazza Navona) every time someone writes a witty remark and hangs a sign at Pasquino’s feet.