Thursday, April 5, 2012

Facebook and Twitter in 16th Century Rome

By Patricia Winton

They pre-date Twitter and Facebook by about 500 years, but they have served a similar purpose. For half a millennium, Rome’s Statue Parlanti (talking statues) have provided the Roman people a place to make public comments despite many attempts to silence them.

Pasquino laden with comments
The first of the talking statues, a badly damaged ancient Roman marble of Menelaus, was unearthed in 1501 during excavations for the Palazzo Orsi. Cardinal Oliviero Carafa, for whom the restoration was being done, placed the statue in a small square near Piazza Navona.

Carafa was a patron of the arts, bringing the first printing press to Italy and assembling a great library. He sponsored a poetry-in-Latin contest and displayed the winning poems on the base of the as yet unnamed statue. Others began posting their own poetry. Soon, papers with satiric messages lampooning Roman rulers (i.e. the papacy) began appearing among the poetry.

The statue soon came to be called Il Pasquino in honor of a nearby tailor. Signor Pasquino often worked in noble houses, plying his needle and thread. 
He melted into the background as he worked and overheard much gossip. He had a particularly acerbic wit and regaled his patrons and neighbors with these stories. The satirical poems and the tailor’s pithy utterances became known as pasquinate, giving origin to the English word pasquinade, a satirical piece of writing (usually about a person) posted in a public place.

Because it was dangerous to criticize the ruling popes, notices were posted in the dead of night and always anonymously. One of the earliest pasquinate read, "Quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini.” That is, what the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini did. That barb was directed at Pope Urban VIII of the Barberini family who, among other things, melted down the bronze doors to the Pantheon to craft the altar canopy in St. Peter’s and make cannons.

The popes repeatedly tried to stop the postings. When Pope Adrian VI threatened to toss the Pasquino into the Tiber, someone posted a bill saying that the statue, like a frog, would talk louder under water. Finally, the military placed guards around the Pasquino, so the sly Romans began posting pasquinate on other statues around the city. 

Altogether, six statues came to talk through these posts. One of these, the Marforio, engaged in a dialog with Pasquino. After a satirical comment appeared on the Pasquino, a response would be posted on the Marforio and vice versa.

One famous exchange between the two occurred during Napoleon Bonaparte’s era:

Marforio: È vero che i francesi sono tutti ladri?

Pasquino: Tutti no, ma BonaParte! 

Marforio: Is it true that all Frenchmen are thieves?

Pasquino: No, not all of them, but Buona Parte. The Roman dialect for “a great deal of them” plays on Napoleon’s name.

The most recent attempt to silence the talking statues began in 2009 at the height of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s legal battles involving corruption and sexual scandals. The Association of Residents in Rome’s Historic Center teamed with the municipal agency charged with keeping cultural sites in good repair. They began a campaign to restore the six statues by cleaning and repairing them and setting up barriers to keep people from getting too close. The association established a website to report on the project’s progress, but they also encouraged people to post on the website instead of the statues.

Pasquino with bill on piling
Many Romans are outraged by this campaign. They say it’s censorship and that a Roman cultural tradition has been muted. During the restoration, the statues were covered and completely inaccessible. On the eve of Berlusconi’s trial, a group called Nessun Dorma ("None Shall Sleep," title of an aria in Puccini's Turandot) posted signs on 150 other Roman statues with such slogans as “Italy is not a brothel,” “the body of Italy is not for sale,” and “the game is over.”

The statues do look lovely, cleaned of grime and paste. Pasquino is behind a chained barrier with concrete pilings designed to keep cars from hitting him – something that happened a few years ago. Initially, a sign board where people were encouraged to post comments stood beside the statue, but that has disappeared. Currently, there are a few comments posted on the concrete pilings of the barrier. I won’t be surprised if pasquinate don’t begin reappearing on the statue’s base before long. It’s hard to stamp out a 500-year-old tradition.
Everyone stopped to read the notices

I blog each Monday at Italian Intrigues.I hope you'll drop by. This week I wrote about Italian Easter breakfast.


  1. Patricia, I enjoyed this post! I too hope that pasquinate does not die out, it is a great tradition!!!

  2. Geets, I'm sure it will survive. There are comments on the website, but I was heartened to see posts on the pilings surrounding the statue. Five hundred years is a long time for the tradition to survive; I can't see its dying anytime soon.

  3. Fascinating post, Patricia. Grazie! I, too, hope the pasquinate continue. Society needs a place to post the subversive!

  4. Ah, Nancy, thanks for the comment. I will report when they continue!

  5. Thanks for all this, Patricia! My first time in Rome, I was horrified at how casually the ancient buildings and statues were treated. But I came to see they're just a part of the everyday life there. This bring that out even more.

  6. Thanks Kaye. Digging in Rome means unearthing the past. Several subway stops have ancient architectural pieces - dug up during construction - on display. People take things for granted precisely because they part of everyday life, but the outcry comes when someone tries to alter them.