How Rome’s Historic ‘Talking Statues’ Helped Create a Space for Public Discourse

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By Melissa Butz

It all started 500 years ago with the Pasquino, known as the first “talking statue in Rome.” The chatter began in 1501 when Cardinal Carafa, who owned the building attached to the sculpture, organized a literary competition. It quickly backfired when Romans started posting criticisms of the Curia and even the pope himself. 

The statue is one of six in Rome known for “speaking” a form of political dissent where written sarcastic commentary criticizing political and religious leaders were posted near the sculptures.

“We had also other popes, for example, popes who lasted  for ;too many years,’ according to the Romans,” said Roman art historian Sara Magister. “Then the prayers hung up on the Pasquino statue were, ‘Let’s hope the Holy Spirit will give us a pope who loves us, that fears God, but that doesn’t last so long.’”

Pontiffs condemned the behavior, but couldn’t stop it. Some statues were taken off the streets and enclosed in museums. The Pasquino had guards placed by it day and night. Still, the sarcastic comments continued. 

Today is no different. Two notes hang by the statue.

“The first one is mainly celebrating il Pasquino as a place where the cardinals have always been criticized,” said Sara. “The other one, is asking the people to keep on doing these critics, mainly against the establishment.” 

Just around the corner is the Pasquino’s closest friend, the Abate Luigi. He would often engage in banter with the Pasquino, like with other statues.

Sara said that “the Marforio asked, ‘Is it true that all of the French are thieves?’ And the Pasquino answered, ‘No, not all of them, but ‘Bonaparte,’ – which is the main part – ‘yes.’ Bonaparte is the last name of Napoleon.”

Witty conversations like these were common on statues in the most populated parts of Rome. Piazza Vidoni was chosen as Abate Luigi’s home only around 100 years ago.

Satire originally hung around Abate Luigi’s neck, until his head was likely stolen in the 1930s, making the commentary much more difficult to continue for this particular talking statue, one of six throughout the Eternal City.