In Rome even the statues speak!
Among the many curiosities about Rome, that about the talking statues is certainly one of the strangest. Yes, you didn’t make a mistake: in Rome there are statues that speak! In this article we will have a look at some of them; statues able to 'speak' by means of signs, in Latin or Italian, that were hung around their necks at night.
The most famous is without any doubt Pasquino, a true 'star', who over the centuries has spoken and criticized anyone and anything more than all the others. It all began in 1501 when during some renovation works behind Piazza Navona, for what later would become Palazzo Braschi, a very battered classical bust was found, probably part of the sculptural decorations of the Domitian's Stadium.
Cardinal Oliviero Carafa was so pleased with the find that he decided to have the statue placed at the corner of the Palazzo, so that everybody could see it. Every year the students of a school that was close-by, organized a big party during which poems were written in verse and at the end of the evening they were placed right on that statue and there they stayed for quite a while. Since then people with increasing frequency, began to affix signs or tablets around the neck of the sculptural bust that over time became real satires against the various public figures of the time and above all against the rulers, the Popes.
Throughout history these pungent criticisms called 'Pasquinate' have had a linguistic evolution, from Latin to vulgar to Romanesco. The Popes were forced to have the statue guarded to avoid such manifestations of 'hate' towards power and as a consequence to escape censorship, a group of intellectuals known as “il congresso degli Arguti” appointed 5 other statues to help Pasquino in his mission.
Often and willingly you could even follow a dialogue between them. Pasquino himself sometimes conversed with Marforio, the statue that is in the courtyard of the Palazzo Nuovo in the Capitol, considered in fact 'his shoulder'. It is a colossal statue depicting a male deity, lying on the edge of a pool. With a long beard and a cloak, he holds a shell in his left hand. One of the most famous exchanges is the one in which Marforio asks him:
-Pasquino, but is it true that the French are all thieves?-
And the next day Pasquino responds:
-No, not all of them, but Bona Parte!- (a good part)
We are, of course, in the period of the French occupation in Rome. It is not known who gave voice to these statues between 1550 and 1800 but most likely they were several intellectuals who from time to time impersonated these sculptures. Continuing along via del Corso we find the third talking statue, the Facchino in via Lata. It is a small fountain that represents a male figure, whose face is no longer visible, pouring water from a barrel. He is wearing the typical costume of the guild of porters who filled barrels and casks with the water of the Tiber or from the ancient Trevi fountain and then distributed it in the city during the day. Then we find the fourth statue, Abbot Luigi, a headless Roman sculpture of the late imperial era which after numerous moves is now located on the side of the church of S. Andrea della Valle, in Piazza Vidoni.
Going down from the Campidoglio towards Piazza San Marco, leaning against Palazzo Venezia in a corner, we also find a statue of a woman, Madama Lucrezia, the fifth statue: a half bust of which however, not much is known. It is probably Isis or one of her priestess due to the knot she has on her torso, near her breast, characteristic of the iconography of Isis. The name seems to be linked to the noblewoman Lucrezia d'Alagno, lover of the king of Naples, Alfonso V of Aragon, who settled in Rome in the hope of obtaining the concession to divorce for the king.
And here we end our tour with the last of the talking statues, considered Pasquino's alter ego. It is a sileno (a Greek mythological deity) of the Roman era, lying in a stream of gushing water, which for its ugliness was nicknamed Er Babuino by the common people. It is located between Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo, in a corner of Via del Babbuino. His satires were given the name of 'babuinate' and this makes us understand the importance that this statue acquired in respect to Pasquino.
The Talking Statues have always had a lot to say against the arrogance of the powerful using their sharp tongues to give voice to the weak.
The next time you come back to Rome, go and look for them!
By Antonella Mele
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