BY Dorothea Jaffe in Opinion | 10 OCT 03
Featured in
Issue 78

Scritti Politti

The history of anonymous protest in Rome

BY Dorothea Jaffe in Opinion | 10 OCT 03

Bitching is the risk sport of Romans today. Inhabitants of the Eternal City are cautious gossips, and great care is always taken before aspersions are cast on someone's sexual orientation, family wealth or lack of honesty. Rome's centre is just too small to take chances: it's likely that the hairdresser of the girlfriend of the brother of the person you're bitching about will overhear your every barbed comment. News here spreads like wildfire. One slip and your bella figura, the perfect personal image you've spent years refining, can be all but ruined.

Public and communal complaints, however, are more freely aired. Almost every weekend strangely graceful protest marches colour the city's streets and, with Silvio Berlusconi at the nation's helm, Italians have much to say. In this climate Rome's so-called 'talking statues' (an early form of street graffiti) are a reminder that stylishly vocalized opinion, with a penchant for anonymity and the ability to satirize the corruption of the city's rulers, has been a Roman tradition for centuries.

In the first half of the 15th century, when the Pope gained direct governmental authority over Rome, a number of Classical statues voiced their political opposition. Denied a forum for complaints against the papacy by heresy laws, Roman citizens nightly adorned a number of stony city-centre mouthpieces with anonymous poems in Latin or Roman dialect, riddled with wit, civic pride and contempt for the presiding Holy Father. Of the six unofficially elected talking heads perhaps the most popular, charismatic and frequently used today is Il Pasquino (the other five are: Marforio by the Capitoline Museums, the Facchino fountain in Via Lata, Madama Lucrezia in Piazza Vidoni, Babuino in Via del Babuino and Abate Luigi near S. Andrea della Valle). Il Pasquino is a gnarled antique stump that was dug up in 1501 and is believed to represent the Homeric king Menelaus. Stories vary as to how Il Pasquino, situated in an eponymous square behind Piazza Navona, acquired his moniker. The most popular says he's named after a local tailor who died just before the statue was erected, and whose shop was reputed to be a hotbed of political debate. In any case, whoever inspired the name can only be proud of the association, and of the quality of the pasquinata (the word now used for a short satire exhibited in a public place) that have been hung about his neck. Even Il Pasquino's earliest jokes are still quite funny: in 1633, when Pope Urban VIII's order that bronze tiles be stripped from the Pantheon to create a huge altar canopy in St Peter's, Il Pasquino drily commented, 'what hadn't been done by the barbarians, the Barberini are doing instead' ('quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini').

Il Pasquino's poetic and anti-papal discourse was so keenly followed by Rome's citizenry that he became established as the bête noire of several consecutive popes. These pontiffs tried to fight back, with Adrianus VI (1522-3) putting Il Pasquino under nightly surveillance and others proposing that he be thrown in the Tiber, but it was only when Rome's talking statues began to communicate with each other that any effective action was taken. In the late 17th century Romans were worried by Pope Clement XI's lack of interest in their city's well-being, and his zeal for the rival settlement of Urbino. Voicing the people's concern, Marforio (a colossal statue of a river-god situated at the foot of the Capitoline Hill) asked Il Pasquino: 'What are you doing Pasquino?' ('Dimmi; che fai Pasquino?'). Il Pasquino responded: 'Well, I'm keeping an eye on Rome, to make sure it doesn't head off to Urbino' ('Eh, guardo Roma, chè non vada a Urbino'). Soon afterwards, with the excuse of preserving a fine antique statue, Marforio was incarcerated inside the Palazzo Nuovo di Campidoglio.

Though the talking statues were politically active until the 19th century, it seems some of these stone mouthpieces have now fallen silent. The pedestal of Il Pasquino, however, continues to be covered in subversive poetry and anti-government declarations. Berlusconi provides great inspiration for poems written in Roman dialect, stuck to the statue alongside annotated newspaper cuttings and hand-drawn cartoons. The enemy may have changed his vestal robes for the bling-bling attire of a media mogul, but the issues (high taxes, corruption, nepotism, conflicting interests) remain the same. This is the Eternal City after all.