In the year 1501, digging for a construction site in central Rome, workers uncovered an ancient statue from the Third century b.C.. Anywhere else in the world that would have been cause for celebration and amazement: on the grounds of the cradle of western civilization, instead, it was taken just as an annoyance due to the common occurrence of such discoveries. In fact, the statue was in pretty bad shape and fit for dumping, but the cardinal who was financing the site chose to keep it in the futile attempt to further ennoble his new palace. The actually ugly statue ended up exhibited on the street at one corner of the building, where it remains to this day. It would have been just one among the thousands of unremarkable statues dotting Rome, if not for its strange destiny of “talking statue”. The Capital of Italy has six of them: while of course they do not actually speak, they play an important role in the life of the city.

The tradition of talking statues began in the Sixteenth century. Citizens fed up with corrupted officials and with the hypocrisy of the Church hung satirical poems from the neck of selected statues, denouncing the misdeeds of those too powerful to be accused by official means. The signs were usually placed during nighttime: while police rushed to remove them as soon as they were discovered, their content always managed to reach and amuse everyone.

According to legend, the most proficuous and skillful satirist was a barber called Pasquino, so the statue mentioned above inherited his name and the poems became known as pasquinate (roughly translatable as ‘the stuff Pasquino does’). Being the subject of a pasquinata meant to be ridiculed in such a shameful way that several prominent men were forced to leave the city forever by them. While the citizens mostly limited themselves to laugh at the rhyming accusations, higher circles could be tore down completely by revelations similar to what the Wikileaks scandal represented for us.

When the talking statues – always led by the “Pasquino” one – began denouncing the Pope Benedict XIII himself, authorities had to act more harshly. The initial idea of removing the statues and dumping them into the Tiber river was quickly retired as soon as the people announced (via another pasquinata, of course) to be ready to start a civil war to defend them. Vatican guards were then stationed 24 hours a day to prevent anyone from posting more pasquinate – but Romans simply switched to other statues, until it was clear that no amount of surveillance would deter them.
Thus, Pasquino and its colleagues keep talking to this day. After a renovation in 2009, citizens are kindly requested not to touch the ancient statue itself but post their lamentations (often looking more like laser-printed rants than fine poems, unfortunately) on a new special board built for this purpose in the basement of the statue. And so, one of the smartest traditions of Rome keeps living on…