They say "if the walls could talk!"...
... 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.
LIFE Photo Collection
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.
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.
The aura of myth around the Pasquino statue is enhanced by absence of information: these are based on hypothesis rather than descriptions.
It is believed that the Pasquino statue belongs to an Hellenic sculpted group (III Century b.C.). Who are the two figures represented here? Probably Melano holding Patroclo or Aiace holding Achille. The sculpture is visible in Piazza della Signoria in Florence, inside the Loggia dei Lanzi or Loggia della Signoria.
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.
Statua di PasquinoYouth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO
A topical type of protest
Even today, in the age of digital media, “Pasquino’s base is still covered in anti-government poems, snarky asides about enemies, and complaints about community affairs.”
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.
Exhibition edited by Youth Committee of the Italian Commission for UNESCO - Lazio: Antonio Geracitano, Marco Anzellotti, Vittoria Azzarita, Andrea Bangrazi, Ilaria Cacciotti, Francesca Candelini, Giovanni Cedrone, Carlotta Destro, Caterina Francesca Di Giovanni, Alessandra Feola, Paolo Ianniccari, Marta Lelli, Laura Leopardi, Ginevra Odone, Dario Saltari, Paolo Scipioni.
Youth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO
More details on the Pasquino statue and its representation available here