Strolling through the ancient streets of Rome, it is easy to imagine the echoing voices of people of the past, whispering the secrets and the events of their time. However, there are special corners of the city where today’s wanderer can encounter statues that speak, albeit with the voices of Rome’s human inhabitants. The Pasquini, or the Talking Statues, are enduring symbols of the city’s active political life and longstanding tradition of dissent.
The first of Rome’s talking statues was erected in 1501 by Cardinal Oliviero Carafa. Standing just outside of Piazza Navona, this battered classical sculptural fragment is thought to represent Menelaus, a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original. Every year on the Feast of St. Mark, the cardinal would chair a Latin literary competition of sorts, the results of which were posted on the statue. By the mid-sixteenth century, these poems had taken on a somewhat satirical tone, generally in reference to the ruling Pope of the day; and their posting on the statue extended beyond the competition period. The ruling Pope was the most frequent object of lampooning by the writers who felt that they could safely vent their dissatisfaction through the anonymous voice of the statue. This first talking statue is thought to have been given the name of a local tailor named “Pasquino.” Supplied with gossip from his ecclesiastical clients, Pasquino was known to be very vocal with his salacious criticism of the papal government.
The dissenting commentaries on the papal government were viewed, of course, as subversive and offensive by the Popes. While they did not want to appear ridiculous by punishing an inanimate statue by throwing it into the river (as Pope Adrian VI apparently desired to do) the practice of posting comments on Pasquino was forbidden, and the statue was put under surveillance. The voices of Rome have never been easily silenced, however, and the prohibition of posting commentaries on Pasquino led to the designation of an enormous statue of a river-god at the foot of the Capitoline Hill as a second Pasquino. He was named Marforio and he added greatly to the vivacity of the public roasting of the Popes as, through the barbs posted on both statues, he and Pasquino eventually began “talking” to each other. At the beginning of the 18th century Pope Clement XI was so interested in the city of Urbino that Marforio and Pasquino had this little conversation:
Marforio: “Dimmi, che fai Pasquino?” (“Tell me Pasquino, what are you doing?”)
Pasquino: “Eh, guardo Roma, che non vada a Urbino.” (“I watch over Rome, to make sure it’s not moved to Urbino”)
The most notorious pasquinade was posted after Pope Urban VIII, of the Barberini family, stripped the Pantheon of its bronze-strapped girders for use in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pasquini proclaimed: Quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini (What the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini did)
Eventually, an ancient statue of Isis became known as Madama Lucrezia, and she added a female character to the talkative statues, which collectively became known as il Congresso degli Arguti (the Shrewd Congress). Several other statues eventually joined the Shrewd Congress, but the most famous remained il Pasquino. The piazza where he sits was eventually named after him, Piazza di Pasquino, and forms of the word “pasquinata” have made their way into most European languages to describe satire in a public place.
Touring the Pasquini of Rome is easy to do in an afternoon, as they’re all located within the Centro Storico:
The most famous of Rome’s talking statues is located in the small piazza that is named for it. Piazza di Pasquino is located off of Via S. Maria dell’Anima, to the west of Piazza Navona.
Once located at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, this classical statue represented a river-god was eventually incarcerated in the Palazzo Nuovo di Campidoglio in 1679, ostensibly to preserve it but just as likely to prevent further derogatory dialogue with Pasquino against the Popes. The Palazzo Nuovo is part of the Capitoline Museums.
This ancient statue, in a poor state of preservation, is located near Chiesa di S. Marco, attached to the wall of the Palazzetto Venezia. The origins of the name are unclear, however some scholars believe that she is named for a Signora Lucrezia, who owned some houses nearby in the fifteenth century and shared the same admired, Junoesque proportions as the statue.
The only statue among the Shrewd Congress that is not ancient, it depicts a Renaissance-era seller of water with his cask. “The Porter” has been converted into a fountain, through which the famously clean and palatable water of Rome’s aquifers continuously flows. It is located just off of Via del Corso, on the Via Lata.
“The Baboon” is located on the street that bears its name, the Via del Babuino. Il Babuino scowls at us from atop a fountain, and one look at the degraded facial features of this ancient statue of Silenus and the visitor understands why the Renaissance-era citizens of this quarter of Rome gave the statue its unflattering name. Its location in a quarter of Rome that was home to many foreigners made it an ideal site for posting pasquinades with a low risk of being caught.
-Sarah Yeomans is an archaeolgist who works as a docent for Context Rome.