Located near Piazza Navona is one of Rome’s most iconic and unknown sights, testament to a history of civic resistance and a timeless resentment of the Vatican: Pasquino, la statua parlante, or the talking statue. The history of Pasquino is masked by legend, but the poems through which he spoke still remain, providing a window into the city’s history and Roman culture.
Legend claims that the statue now known as Pasquino was named after a local craftsman. Storytellers disagree on whether he was a barber a baker or a candlestick maker, (actually, many seem to agree that he was a tailor) but all confirm that he was known in his neighborhood for his satirical wit, which he exercised by attaching poems deriding powerful public figures (mainly the Pope) to a statue near Piazza Navona.
Even after Pasquino’s death, poems written in Romanesco continued appearing on the statue, still targeting individuals in power (still mostly the Pope). The statue plays a major part in Luigi Magni’s film Nell’Anno del Signore, as the speaking statue derides the ever more oppressive regime of the Papa Re – the “Pope King”. Cornacchia, the seemingly illiterate cobbler, is revealed to be Pasquino.
The statue is from the Hellenistic era, though there is disagreement over what (and who) it actually depicts, whether it be Menalaos, Hercules, or Ajax. But with time the statue’s original subject became unimportant. Today it is remembered as Pasquino, the voice of the voiceless amongst the Roman populace of the 19th century.
Though the statue of Pasquino is the most well known of the talking statues, he wasn’t the only one. In fact, the statues often engaged in conversation and debate from across the city.
With time, the poems written and affixed to the statue became known as Pasquinate. The poems testify to Roman wit, a wicked sense of humor capable of laughing despite the worst of times and situations. It is said that after a long silence, Pasquino began to speak again just before Hitler’s visit to the city, with a poem lamenting lovely Rome’s reduction to such a sad state.
The words the statues spoke – several Pasquinate explained
It’s difficult to translate the genius of these satirical poems into English. Though I am a fair translator, creating a new poem that maintains the rhythm and power of these verses is beyond my capabilities. Instead of attempting this feat, I’ve provided very literal translations as well as explanations of the historical and cultural meanings of each poem. If you want to understand the true beauty of the pasquinate, grab your nearest Roman and ask them to read one out loud. Even if you don’t understand the words, you’ll appreciate the beauty of the language.
Quod non fecerunt barbari,
What the barbarians didn’t do,
the Barberinis did.
This poem was dedicated to Pope Urbino VIII (who was a member of the illustrious Barberini family – see Piazza/Villa Barberini) who authorized the melting down of bronze from the Pantheon for use in St. Peter’s Basilica. It indicates the tension very present in Rome between the glory of the church and the pagan history of Rome (though it’s hard to find hard evidence, it is common knowledge that the marble used to build St. Peter was “mined” from the Roman forums).
A similar poem reads:
Da quando è Niccolò papa e assassino,
abbonda a Roma il sangue e scarso è il vino.
Ever since Nicholas became pope and murderer,
in Rome blood is abundant and wine is lacking.
At the death of Pope Leon X (infamous for providing pardons or “indulgences” in return for money to build monuments such as St. Peter’s Basilica):
Gli ultimi istanti per Leon venuti,
egli non poté avere i sacramenti;
perché da tempo già li avea venduti!
This one doesn’t discuss the Pope but is an excellent example of the Roman predilection for plays on words is part of a conversation which Pasquino had with Marforio.
È vero che i francesi sono tutti ladri? /
Pasquino: Tutti no, ma BonaParte!
Is it true that the French are all thieves?
Pasquino: All no, but most of them!
Bona parte in Roman dialect literally means “most of them” but, as can be seen above, also spells out the name Bonaparte, as a direct criticism of Napoleon’s habit of taking art from his conquests back to France.