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Pasquino the Talking Statue

by Mauro Scarpati - © Nerone The Insider's Guide to Rome

proofreading by Jennifer Clark

 

The Pasquino's statue, placed at the end of Via del Governo Vecchio, close to Piazza Navona, is one of the most recognizable symbols of Rome for nearly five centuries: not only because of its artistic importance, but even more because of his transformation from a simple statue into a sort of "popular newspaper" or voice of the people.

With Pasquino began the tradition of the so-called "talking statues." In a period when every opposition to the papal government was strictly forbidden, it was easier to criticize the pope by just hanging up fierce poems as well as political proclamations upon the statue itself! Once this practice broke out, it became a very popular way to attack the worst sides of the political papal power with stylistically noteworthy poems.

As a matter of fact, it wasn't that hard to find out something to criticize at those times about the popes' issues: considering high taxes, corruptions, nepotisms, adulteries and so on, it's possible to say that through their behaviour, the popes themselves provided the subjects of suggested poem to Pasquino!

The discovery of Pasquino

The Pasquino statue was discovered in 1501 (together with a fragment of another statue, which has since disappeared), during the excavation of the Palazzo Orsini. That palace (now Palazzo Braschi, seat of the Museum of Rome under restoration in this period) was situated in Via del Paione, one of the most important roman streets in the XV-XVI centuries. This via was a fixed path for the papal parades from the Vatican to the city center. Cardinal Carafa, the owner of Palazzo Orsini, set the sculpture on a pedestal at the street corner, where is remains to this day. Art lovers tried to recognize the character represented in that incomplete statue. 

Michelangelo's hypotesis on the identity of the statue, based on the Homer's book Iliad, was considered to be the most likely one: he saw in the statue Homer's charachter Menelao as he drags the dying body of Patroclo. But, for the people of Rome the statue became known as Pasquino. We don't know precisely the origin of this name. It is believed to have come from the real name of a tailor whom had his shop in the same street--a shop considered sort of a "political party seat" because of the lively debates that took place in there.

In the first years after its discovery the statue took on a sort of official function. Being in a street usually crossed by religious ceremonies, Pasquino was often allegorically masked, and on its pedestal latin poems were hung, edifying the people. Soon thereafter the romans started to use the statue, in their harsh roman dialect, as an unaware speaker against the papal power. And obviously, the popes didn't take it that well!

Several poets who were suspected to be the authors of the outrageous Pasquino compositions have been burnt alive since the beginning of the XVI century. Well, to be honest, Pasquino wasn't such a lovable writer…Pope Pius V, for instance, one of the most repressives popes of that century, has been made eternal with this verse: 

"quasi che fosse inverno/ as if it was winter, Pius burns 
brucia Cristiani Pio siccome legna/ Christians as if they were wood,
per avvezzarsi al fuoco dell'inferno"/ to get used to the Hell's fire"

Some years before, Pope Alexander VI, from the florientan family of the Borgia:

"son questi Borgia invero sul buon 
cammino/ "These Borgia are on the same good path,
oprando gesta gloriose e degne/ with their deserving and glorious deeds, 
del serpente, di Giuda e di Caino". / with the Snake, with Judas and with Cain.

The "People's Newspaper"

So Pasquino became briefly sort of "People's News", one of the few free voices againts the injustices of power, and for this reason, he became dangerous also for the poets. One of the most famous writers of that period, Pietro l'Aretino, had to escape in a hurry from Rome to Mantova when he has been discovered to be one of the "Pasquino's writers."

During all the XVI and XVII centuries Pasquino was the symbol of the roman opposition against the Pope. In the period following the Council of Trento (1545-1563), every idea of freedom from the papal power was considered to be heretical.

Pasquino knew his fiercest enemy, the Pope Urbanus VIII Barberini, in the first half of the XVII century. This one well known by lower classes as "Papa Gabella" or "Pope Tax" ( that's enough to understand he was not that popular!!).

It has been mainly during his pontificate that the Basilica of San Peter became the magnificent collection of masterpieces we see nowadays; but to do that, he needed money, and marble, and bronze. In order to get these supplies he destroyed some famous roman monuments which were still well-preserved. But when he arrived to take the tiled bronze roof off from the Pantheon dome, Pasquino wrote his most famous verse:

"quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini"
("What the Barbarians didn't do, Barberini did it!")

Another active period for Pasquino was during the occupation of Rome by Napoleon's armies. The statue fiercely attacked the French instead of the pope and asked for the pope to defend the city. This about-face is not a surprise, knowing the real spirit of the Roman citizens who could hardly stand ANY kind of power -- no matter if it's the power of the pope or the one of the enemy armies, or even a freely elected government! 

In the XIX century the "pasquinate" ( how the Pasquino poems are called ) became less incisive, because of the growth of the public freedom and the circulation of newspapers. However, Pasquino kept on making fun of the popes and their governments, but the world around was changing too fast. In 1870 came the freeing of Rome from papal rule, and Pasquino's voice, without its historic enemy, faded away.

We know other statues, as the Abate Luigi, in Piazza Vidoni, il Facchino ( the Porter ), a little fountain in Via Lata, and the famous Madama Lucrezia, a colossal female bust in Piazza San Marco; and all these statues are still there, to remember a quite peculiar period in the history of the roman folklore.

How to get there 

The statue of Pasquino is nowadays in Piazza Pasquino, a little square at the end of Via del Governo Vecchio, few steps from Piazza Navona. It is impossible not to find it: once in Piazza Navona, ask to every passerby: everyone knows Pasquino!

If you are lucky you could find some poems hung on the pedestal; the tradition started again some years ago, and it is now stronger then ever! Usually they are poems to make fun of the italian politicians…but even if you speak a good italian, you would need a translator to understand that harsh roman dialect, because Pasquino never "learnt" Italian!