The talking statues of Rome provided an outlet for a form of anonymous political expression in Rome. Criticisms in the form of poems or witticisms were posted on well-known statues in Rome, as an early instance of bulletin board. It began in the 16th century and continues to the present day.
By the 16th century, the power of the Papacy had become oppressive and the people of Rome wanted greater freedom. They therefore invented a new way to express their discontent without being “caught”: they began to anonymously publicise their criticisms by posting epigrams and short satirical verses on some statues. The most famous of these is Pasquino, just a short distance from Piazza Navona. However, several more can be found throughout the city of Rome.
The statue of Pasquino is what remains of a work from the 3rd century BC that probably adorned the Stadium of Domitian in present-day Piazza Navona. The “Pasquinades”, normally posted at night, were often composed by poets and thinkers familiar with metre and Latin, and the people of Rome could enjoy a good laugh the following morning before the messages were removed by the authorities. Strict laws were enforced to put a stop to this practice and Pasquino was placed under surveillance. Pope Adrian VI (1522-23) even threatened to have Pasquino thrown into the Tiber, and Benedict XIII issued an edict in 1728, condemning anyone caught posting “pasquinades” on the statue to death, confiscation and infamy.
The first talking statue was that of Pasquino, a damaged piece of sculpture on a small piazza. In modern times the weathered fragment has been identified as representing the mythical king of Sparta, Menelaus, husband of Helen of Troy, and a major character in the Iliad, holding the body of Patroclus. In 1501, the statue was found during road construction and set up in the piazza; soon after small poems or epigrams critical of religious and civil authorities began to be posted on it. One story of the origin of the statue’s name, and of its witticisms, is that it was named to honor a local resident named Pasquino. A tailor by trade (in some versions of the story he is a barber or schoolmaster), this man’s career took him into the Vatican, where he would learn behind-the-scenes gossip. He would then spread this gossip, with acerbic commentary, for the entertainment of friends and neighbors. Upon his death, the statue was named in his honor, and people began posting commentary similar to Pasquino’s on the statue.
Of Pope Urban VIII, who reused the bronze of the Pantheon for St. Peter’s basilica, he said: “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini” (What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did).
A number of popes, who were often the butt of criticism from the statues, sought to limit the posting of commentary on Pasquino. Adrian VI planned to have it thrown into the Tiber River, and was only dissuaded when told that, like a frog, the statue would only croak louder in water. Another potentially apocryphal story has a reward being offered to the anonymous writers if they came forward. According to the tale, one man responded, and his hands were cut off. Eventually, the authorities settled for posting guards by the statue to prevent the posting of more commentary. As a result, the public turned to other statues, who joined Pasquino as talking statues.
Not only Pasquino
Pasquino is not the only talking statue in Rome. The capital has a tradition listing a series of sculptures that formed the “Congregation of Wits”, free thinkers carved in stone and characterised by the mordancy of their messages to popes and noblemen.
On a side wall of the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle there is a headless statue of a man holding a scroll, probably a Roman magistrate or orator, from the late imperial era. It was nicknamed Abbot Luigi by the people, perhaps because of a resemblance to the sacristan of the nearby church of the Madonna del Santissimo Sudario. The statue has an inscription on the front of its marble pedestal: “I was a citizen of ancient Rome | Now they all call me Abbot Luigi | Along with Marforio and Pasquino I conquer| Eternal fame for urban satire | I received offenses, disgrace and burial | till here I found new life and finally safety.”
A stone’s throw from the Altare della Patria, there is an immense marble bust probably representing a priestess of Isis or even the goddess Isis herself. Here too, a nickname was given by the people, in reference to a noble lady of the 15th century, Lucrezia d’Alagna. The noblewoman was the mistress of the king of Naples, Alfonso of Aragon, and lived near present-day Palazzo Venezia, where the statue is located today, on the corner with Piazza San Marco.
Madama Lucrezia is one of the five “talking statues” of Rome. Pasquinades — irreverent satires poking fun at public figures — were posted beside each of the statues from the 16th century onwards, written as if spoken by the statue, largely in answer to the verses posted at the sculpture called “Pasquino” Madama Lucrezia was the only female “talking statue”, and was the subject of competing verses by Pasquin and Marforio.
Madama Lucrezia is a colossal Roman bust, about 3 metres high, sited on a plinth in the corner of a piazza between the Palazzo Venezia and the basilica of St. Mark. The statue is badly disfigured, and the original subject cannot be identified with certainty, but may represent the Egyptian goddess Isis (or of a priestess of Isis), or perhaps a portrait of the Roman empress Faustina. The bust was given to Lucrezia d’Alagno, the lover of Alfonso d’Aragona, King of Naples; she moved to Rome after Alfonso’s death in 1458.
Pie’ di marmo
Although irreverent messages were sometimes found there, the Pie’ di marmo is not included among the “Congregation of Wits”. According to some, it was the foot of the statue of Madame Lucrezia: this is indicated by the size and quality of the marble, and the robe and the sandal, which are typical of the priestesses of Isis. The foot was found in the 16th century and was placed in the street that now bears its name. In 1878, it was moved to the corner of Via Santo Stefano del Cacco in order not to obstruct the funeral procession of King Vittorio Emanuele II.
Fontana del Babuino
Resting on a porphyry fountain beside Palazzo Grandi, the statue of the Babuino probably depicts a Silenus, a deity that was half man and half satyr. According to tradition, the popular nickname is due to its grotesque appearance. Another theory links the nickname with the term “babbione” (from the Latin “bambalio”: old scoundrel). The satires of the Babuino gained such attention that for a certain period that they stole the limelight from Pasquino and earned themselves the name “babbuinate”.
In 1571 Pope Pius V granted the use of some once of the water of the newly inaugurated Virgin, once restored, to the palace of noble Alessandro Grandi, on what was then called Via Paolina, which he realized, in honor of the Pontiff , a public fountain, placing the statue ornament of the quadrangular tub, lying on the facade of the palace. From the concession to the pipeline, the fountain took a few years, but in 1576 it had to be finished, as the ornaments also include two dolphins, a heraldic symbol of the family of the new pope Gregory XIII (the Buoncompagni) bought the palace. The statue was inserted into a niche bordered by two pilasters whose capitals supported the upper frame on which the two dolphins were placed.
The statue of the fountain was so singular that it strongly influenced the fantasy and interest of the Romans. One of the first effects was to determine the change of the same landmark of the road, which by way of Paolina mutated precisely in Via del Babuino. In addition, he was soon included among the “speaking statues” of Rome, and like the other five was the “voice” of various poisoned, violent and often irreverent satire aimed at striking even heavily and always anonymously the most public figures in seen in Rome since the 14th century. More than her pigs were called baboon, but the content was the same.
Fontana del Facchino
The Fontana del Facchino (“The Porter Fountain”) was probably sculpted by Jacopo del Conto towards the end of the sixteenth century and depicts an “acquarolo” of the Confraternity of the Acquarenari, who sold water from the public fountains from door to door. The popular nickname is perhaps due to the appearance of the clothing, which is very similar to the typical attire of the guild of porters, or else to an epigraph that is now lost.
It represents a male figure with almost completely consumed face, while pouring water from a barrel. The disfigured face is due to the offenses of the street dragons targeting them by throwing stones. This is because the character, according to a popular belief, because of the cap and clothing of many was even considered Martin Luther It is the youngest of the statues speaking, dating back to 1580, when Jacopo Del Conte made it on behalf of the Guild of the Acquaroli.
Like the other five, it was the “voice” of various squatters, the violent and often irreverent satire aimed at attacking even the most prominent public figures in Rome anonymously and anonymously.
Dating from the first century AD and now located in the courtyard of Palazzo Nuovo at the Capitoline Museums, the statue represents a river god and probably came from the temple of Mars in the Forum of Augustus. The name “Marforio” is thought to derive from “Mare in Foro” or, according to others, from the Marfuoli family, who resided near the Mamertine prison, where the statue was found. Marforio was considered as Pasquino’s “straight man”: each answered the other’s questions with a mocking tone. One of the most famous satires was centred on Camilla, the sister of Pope Sixtus V, who came from peasant origins but began to adopt a noble attitude. To Marforio’s question: “Hey, Pasquino, why is your shirt so dirty? You look like a coal merchant!” Pasquino replied, “What can I do? My washerwoman has been made a princess!”
Marphurius is one of the talking statues of Rome. Marforio maintained a friendly rivalry with his most prominent rival, Pasquin. As at the other five “talking statues”, pasquinades — irreverent satires poking fun at public figures — were posted beside Marforio in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Marforio is a large 1st century Roman marble sculpture of a reclining bearded river god or Oceanus, which in the past has been variously identified as a depiction of Jupiter, Neptune, or the Tiber. It was the humanist and antiquarian Andrea Fulvio who first identified it as a river god, in 1527. The Marfoi was a landmark in Rome from the late 12th century. Poggio Bracciolini wrote of it as one of the sculptures surviving from Antiquity, and in the early 16th century it was still near the Arch of Septimius Severus, where the various authors reported it.
Far from being a strictly Roman phenomenon, the term “pasquinades” also spread to other European cities, indicating satirical, political, ecclesiastical or personal compositions and lampoons.