Pasquino: Did You Know That Sculptures Could Speak?
Updated: Dec 21, 2022
This inconspicuous sculpture is one of Rome’s six so-called ‘talking statues’ (statue parlanti). His name is Pasquino. He can be found on the corner of Via del Governo Vecchio and Via dei Leutari in Piazza di Pasquino, just seconds away from Piazza Navona.
This damaged sculpture blends with the rustication behind it and rarely gets noticed by tourists and passers-by. However, for years it has acted as a medium through which the people of Rome have criticized and satirized the authorities. This tradition began in the 16th century. The general public began writing complaints about the Pope and other authoritative figures in the form of anonymous notes and short verses, which they would affix to the bases of certain statues during the night, for authorities to find in the morning.
Many Popes tried, in vain, to stop this mischievous form of attack. Pope Hadrian VI tried to throw one of the talking statues into the Tiber River. However, he ultimately listened to the advice of his cardinals who cautioned him that the Romans were more than likely to retaliate in a much stronger manner. Pope Benedict XIII assigned a watchman to guard the talking statues day and night, but the satiric and aggressive remarks only continued to grow in number. Since the majority of the Roman working class in the 16th century was illiterate, the spokespersons for their collective unrest were most likely intellectuals, academics, or members of noble families.
Pasquino dates back to the 3rd century BC. He was originally one of the sculptures adorning the sides of the antique Stadium of Domitian, today known as Piazza Navona. For years, the statue of Pasquino remained buried underground, until 1501 when it was discovered during road work in Piazza di Pasquino. That explains why the statue is badly damaged. As you can see, its facial features are barely visible and it is missing its arms and legs. Cardinal Oliviero Carafa, who was in charge of the renovations, fought for the sculpture to be kept and exhibited in the piazza, and his crest and commemorative plaque are hence visible alongside the sculpture. On Saint Mark’s Day, he draped the statue with a toga and attached Latin epigrams to its base, thereby giving it a voice for the very first time.
It is not clear who the sculpture was meant to represent (because of its ruined nature). It has been speculated that he was originally meant to represent Hercules, Ajax, or another figure from Greek mythology. In the eighteenth century, the antiquarian Ennio Quirino Visconti suggested that the sculpture was originally meant to represent Menelaus supporting the body of Patroclus, whose torso diagonally overlaps Pasquino’s body. One can also see the remnants of a hand pressed against Patroclus’s chest.
There are several legends concerning the origin of the name Pasquino. According to some, the sculpture is named after a craftsman named Pasquino, who used to live in the area and who would frequently recount satirical verses. Other accounts state that the sculpture was found near the shop of a barber, blacksmith, cobbler, or tailor named Pasquino. Others insist that there used to be a headmaster who lived in the area who bore a striking resemblance to the statue, and so it was named after him by his students. A fourth anecdote recounts that the sculpture was named after a character in Boccaccio's poetry. One final legend states that Pasquino was named after a restaurant owner named Pasquino, whose restaurant was located in Piazza di Pasquino.
Pasquino is an example of the power of art. Over the years, he has acted as a constant and collective voice for the general public who otherwise didn't have the freedom to express their thoughts so publicly. In doing so, he also became a powerful medium for politics. For example, in 2011, Pasquino voiced assertions such as "the body of Italy is not for sale" and "Italy is not a brothel" in response to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s sex scandals.
Even to this day, Pasquino expresses the views and complaints of the Roman people, whose messages are attached to the board to the immediate right of the figure. Eventually, the complaints voiced from this sculpture came to be known as Pasquinate, after his name Pasquino.
If you are ever in Rome, head over to this sculpture and read what the Romans are currently complaining about or criticizing. Also, why not consider writing something you would like Pasquino to express on your behalf?
By the way, the English words ‘pasquinade’ and ‘pasquil’ (which both mean anonymous satire in verse) derive from Pasquino and the tradition of the Pasquinate.
Click here to watch my vlog on the rest of Rome's talking statues, also known as 'The Congregation of Wits.'
The Congregation of Wits:
- Marforio (Palazzo Nuovo)
- Madama Lucrezia (Piazza di San Marco)
- Abate Luigi (Piazza Vidoni)
- Il Facchino (The Porter Fountain) (Via Lata)
- Il Babuino (Via del Babuino)