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The talking statues of Rome: history and political satire meet!

Published on August 6, 2018 by C. P.

Pasquino Babuino and other talking statues

If you’re staying in one of our apartments in the city center, by Piazza Navona or Campo de’ Fiori, you may already have stumbled upon some ancient Roman statues lying in alleys and/or seemingly in a state of neglect. That isn’t the case: chances are you’ve walked past a so called “talking statue” knowing not what they are.

What’s a talking statue, you ask?

The city of Rome has offered (and continued to do so) an overwhelming amount of archaeological findings. When statues were found during the Renaissance and afterwards that weren’t seized seized by noble families for their own mansions, they were placed in strategic places of Rome and started being considered as an outlet for political criticism (something Romans have always excelled in!). Consider it something between a 3D comics strip and a prototype of a bulletin board!

People could stick anonymous (obviously!) notes with satyrical judgments on the Pope, the religious elite at large or other notorious Romans for everyone to see and comment upon. The amount of notes provided an alternative source of information, one that wasn’t controlled by the Vatican or the local politicians. Some of the talking statues, also called “Congregation of the Wits” are used to this day.

And the most famous talking statue is…

The oldest and most famous talking statue in Rome dates to 1501. That’s when what is known as Pasquino was recovered while building a palace in the square that now shares its name, Piazza di Pasquino. It’s now obvious the statue was a copy of a Greek one depicting Menelaus holding the body of Patroclus (which was never found). People from the Parione district gave it the name Pasquino, and the criticisms which started appearing at the base of the statue became so famous they originated a term, “pasquinate”, which is still used to refer to satyrical prose or poems used to attack the rich and powerful (not exclusively so, though).

Talking statues: an itinerary of sorts

If you enjoyed learning about the Pasquino, you can easily see the other talking statues in the city center. It’s a nice walk through the city center, which you can do in under 30 minutes if you don’t decide to stop at the Musei Capitolini along the way (but more on that later!)

A five minutes walk from Pasquino itself is Abate Luigi, standing on the side of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, on piazza Vidoni. It is really a statue of a Roman magistrate wearing his toga, but it was named after an abbot serving in the nearby Chiesa del Sudario in the late 15th century, known for its sharp tongue.

From there you can see Madama Lucrezia, the only talking statue of a woman, standing on one side of Palazzo Venezia, on piazza San Marco. This talking statue has been very quiet of late!

Marforio has been the luckiest – he doesn’t lie in the streets of Rome anymore but has found a home in the Capitoline Museums. He was part of a back and forth with Pasquino, in that they were “conversing” about the same political issue. Some of the notes between the two tried to determine who was the most worthy of the love of… Madama Lucrezia.

Entering via del Corso from Piazza Venezia, you will find the Facchino (the “Porter”) at the corner with via Lata: the statue dates back to around 1580 and depicts a man who sold water from the river Tiber. Because of its cap, poor people often mistook it for Martin Luther, which is why the face is badly disfigured – it was pelted with stones!

Finally, on via del Babuino, by Piazza del Popolo, you’ll find the Babuino itself – christened that because the people found it “ugly like a baboon monkey”. This is one of the talking statues that is still used the most to this day, but don’t expect a similar amount of notes to those found by the Pasquino: graffiti appear by the statue to denouce injustice in Rome, but they cleaned right after due to the number of high-end boutiques in the street.

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