Talking Statues of Rome
Talking Statues of Rome: A Congregation of Wits

In Rome, ancient statues are a dime a dozen.  Actually, every city I visited in Italy had its fair share of marble and bronze Roman Emperors and Gods; enough representation to satisfy the Christians and the theists.  The statues commemorate a life or event or belief.  Or perhaps they just add a little beautification.  But what if they became more than was intended?  What if they were the sounding boards for the underrepresented; a public forum for activism.  What if… they started to talk?

 

TALKING STATUES OF ROME

During the Renaissance, Papal States in Italy took on an increasing role in diplomacy.  These territories were under the direct rule of the Pope, who became both the spiritual and civic leader.  The papacy became dependent on the revenue coming from its States and used the papal military to expand upon territorial claims.  This increased authority and aggressive expansion was the source of much criticism.  But free-speech wasn’t a commonly held privilege and definitely not appreciated.  Roman people had something to say and needed an anonymous outlet to voice their growing concerns.

An ancient Greek statue [3rd century BC] was unearthed in 1501 during a little roadside construction.  The damaged statue was placed on display in a small square behind the Piazza Navona.  For many years, a Latin literary competition was organized by Cardinal Oliviero Carafa.   On April 25th, the Feast of St. Mark, the statue would be decorated and costumed and verses posted at its base.  It didn’t take long for satirical poems, now commonly known as pasquinades, to appear outside of the competition period.  Meanwhile, a local tailor or barber [history is a bit unclear on the actual profession] was occasionally employed at the Vatican.  He’d return with gossip, proving to be an abundant source of entertainment for his friends.  The statue was named in his honor, Pasquino, and soon similar gossip and commentary started to appear at the base of the statue.  The Talking Statues of Rome were born.

In the early 16th century, Pasquino gained popularity as notes were posted to influence the papal conclave.  The government, ergo the Pope, was lampooned for corruption, greed, murder, and general ‘unholy-ness’.  The influence and criticism from Pasquino was so strong that the statues well-being was at risk.  [Pope Hadrian VI wanted it thrown in the Tiber but feared the backlash from punishing a statue.]   Regulations were placed forbidding the posting of anonymous speeches and Pasquino was ordered under surveillance as an attempt to squash and control its impact.  The unintended result?  Another Talking Statue.

A large, marble river god – Marforio – at the base of Capital Hill became the second Talking Statue of Rome.  During the period that Pasquino was on lockdown, Marforio became the new message board for public opinion.  Civic leaders eventually realized they couldn’t control the anonymous, community expression; security around Pasquino relaxed and both statues began conversing with each other.  The colossal statue was relocated all around Rome in [unsuccessful] attempts to quiet its chatting.  In the mid-17th century, Marforio, under the pretenses of preservation, was relocated to its final location, inside the Palazzo Nuovo di Campidoglio and is now part of the Musei Capitolini.

There are 6 Talking Statues of Rome.  In addition to Pasquino and Marforio, there’s Madama Lucrezia.  An immense, but extremely worn, bust of a woman; believed to be that of Egyptian Goddess Isis or one of her priestesses.  It’s rumored she was brought to Rome around 1458 when Alfonso d’Aragona, King of Naples, died.  The bust was a gift to Lucrezia d’Alagno – de facto queen and lover to Alfonso.

When Pope Urban VIII, of the Barberini family, started taking bronze tiles from the Pantheon to add to the Canopy of St Peter’s one of the most famous pasquinades emerged at Madama Lucrezia:

Quod non fecerunt Barbari fecerunt Barberini.

What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.

L’Abate Luigi, a Roman sculpture excavated near the Theatre of Pompey.  His true identity is unknown [probably that of an emperor] and was eventually named after a clergyman.  The statues’ head is not the original, and part of the reason why he can’t be identified, and has been ‘lost’ and replaced many times.  He was, once again, in a headless state when I visited!  Il Facchino or the Porter, but he actually depicts something different.  A relatively new statue being from the Renaissance and not of Ancient Roman or Greek origin, it portrays a man holding a barrel of water most likely filled from the Tiber and sold on the streets [not a Porter at all!].  Silenus, the drunken companion of Dionysus, is the personality of the final Talking Statues of Rome.   Commonly known as Il Babuino, the baboon, is a half man half goat figure lounging in the Strangers’ Quarter and was not only used to ridicule government figures but local townspeople, as well.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW

Many of the statues have been moved around Rome over the centuries to silence their talking.  I believe Pasquino and Madama Lucrezia are the only two that have remained firmly standing in their original location [although, Lucrezia was knocked off her plinth once].  But searching out all 6 can be an ideal way to spend an afternoon – I am obvi all about the Grid Walking and took the opportunity to walk to each one.  I’ve added their locations to THIS google map.

The Talking Statues of Rome – or the Congregation of Wits – have played a significant role in providing an urban outlet for public expression.  For over 500 years, we have an outline of the injustices and/or criticisms from the Roman people.  And the ‘talking’ hasn’t stopped.  On my walk there were postings at L’Abate Luigi and, of course, Pasquino.  Though, former mayor Gianni Alemanno wasn’t so much a fan.  He created a policy disallowing posts directly on Pasquino and is the reason for the stand to the right and is also responsible for the buffing at Il Babuino.  Seems some things don’t change – political leaders are still trying to silence these chatty statues!

Happy Grid Walking! 🙂

Let me know what you think!