Pasquino in Piazza Navona, the talking statues of Rome as social networks head of their time.
“If the walls could talk!”…The talking statues of Rome or the Congregation of Wits 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.
Well, in Rome the statues do! And they make you laugh. In the 15th century, the power of Papacy hit harsh and Romans wanted more freedom. So, they invented a new way of expressing their discontent without getting “caught”: they started to secretly hang their criticism, stinging epigrams and short satiric verses on statues. In modern days, different waves of demonstrations and protests, such as the Arab Springs, were characterized by similar manifestations. The “pasquinate” anticipated the idea of a shared, independent and democratic communication, the same contemporary social networks are based on.
The talking statues
Satire is a Roman peculiarity since forever: in ancient times, Greeks stood out for oration and tragedy, while in Rome this kind of caustic, desecrating and naughty literature succeeded.
This tradition flourished again during the Renaissance, with the “talking statues” of Rome—the most famous being the one of Pasquino.
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.
The Pasquino statue
The statue is what remains of a work from the 3rd century BC that was once decorating the Stadium of Domitian in today’s Piazza Navona. After it was found in the archaeological site in 1501 (with no arms, legs and head, as we see it today), it was relocated in Piazza di Pasquino, a little square named after the statue, close to piazza Navona.
A voice to silence
“Pasquinate” usually were written at nights, and the Romans enjoyed a good laugh in the mornings, before the messages were removed by the authorities.
Some strict laws were issued to stop this practice and Pasquino was put under surveillance. Pope Adrian VI (1522-23) even threatened to throw Pasquino into the Tiber.
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.
In addition to Pasquino and Marforio, the talking statues include: Madama Lucrezia, Abbot Luigi, Il Babuino, and Il Facchino.
Freedom of satire
Far from being a solely Roman phenomenon, the term “pasquinates” began to spread to other cities and countries, such as Germany, France and England, to designate satirical compositions and lampoons—political, ecclesiastical or personal. Castiga ridendo mores, wrote in ‘700 Jean Santeuil. Or: Correct habits by laughing.
The motto, written for decorating the proscenium of the Comedie italienne in Paris, perfectly summarizes the sense of pasquinades, which are also based on anonymity, one of the essential conditions for a free satire and a truly democratic social critique. In fact, through the talking statues, anonymity and political speech went hand-in-hand for the first time on a large scale.