Behind Piazza Navona is a smaller square, Piazza Pasquino. Many people walk past the weathered statue in the corner without giving it a second glance, probably unaware that it even has a name. This is Pasquino. He’s looking somewhat the worse for wear these days, but then you would be too, if you’d been sitting outside for several hundred years.
Pasquino is the most famous of Rome’s “talking statues”. His fragmented body – perhaps originally a representation of Menelaus, the mythical king of Sparta – was unearthed in 1501, and then displayed in the piazza. Locals used the statue as a kind of 16th-century message board, posting anonymous short poems or epigrams that criticized the authorities. As it was Pasquino who “talked”, he became a convenient mouthpiece for attacks on the Papacy. You couldn’t criticize the Pope directly, but if you had a complaint, you could write a witty little poem – a pasquinade - and stick it on Pasquino in the middle of the night.
One of the most famous pasquinades was:
“Quod non fecerunt Barbari/fecerunt Barberini” (“What the barbarians did not do/the Barberini did”).
This was an attack on Pope Urban VIII Barberini, who had taken the bronze roof tiles from the Pantheon to create the baldachin in St Peter’s Basilica. This was actually a pattern in Rome: many ancient monuments including the Colosseum were pillaged and plundered during the centuries by popes, cardinals, city authorities and whatnot. Ancient roman monuments, that we would nowadays consider sacred, were used like mines. The materials — bronze, marble, iron, travertine and so on— were literally recycled to built most often arms and churches.
On the feast of St Mark (25 April) Pasquino was dressed up as a pagan god – Venus, Janus or Apollo – and used for displaying epigram competition entries. He’s something of a local institution, and if you pass by Pasquino today, you’ll see that locals still express their discontent by posting poems and messages at the base of the statue. But be warned, if you want to decipher them, you’ll need to have some knowledge of Roman dialect (and local politics). But Pasquino is not the only talking statue in the city center. Here are some others to look out for on your walking tour of Rome:
When the authorities became concerned that Pasquino was talking too much, they put him under surveillance. Romans were forced to create new talking statues, and they began with the colossal statue of the river god Marforio, located on the Capitoline Hill. Marforio stopped talking in 1679, when he was moved inside the Capitoline Museums; this is where you’ll find him today.
Il babuino (“the baboon”) gave Via del Babuino its name. He’s actually a statue of the satyr Silenus, and he leers at passers-by, reclining on a marble ledge above a small fountain. The statue was considered so ugly that it acquired the nickname “baboon”, and soon became another one of Rome’s talking statues. It was a particular favourite of the community of foreigners who lived nearby, and the statue and the wall behind it were covered in political graffiti until quite recently. An Italian clothing company recently spent €25,000 restoring the statue and the wall. The layers of anti-vandal paint mean that sadly, il babuino speaks no more.
This mutilated ancient statue is believed to represent the goddess Isis, and is located in a corner of Piazza Venezia, near the church of San Marco. Madama Lucrezia was named after a woman who fell in love with the married King of Naples. She came to Rome to ask the Pope to let the king divorce, but the request was denied, and when the king died, Lucrezia moved to Rome, close to the piazza where the statue stands today.
To see the talking statues of Rome and to learn more about local myths and traditions, explore the city center with a local guide on one of Roma Experience's Rome tours.