Rome is full of secrets. Secrets hiding in plain sight, right under your nose. This one is a secret that everyone who lives in Rome knows, but I never meet non-Romans who do. Now of course I cannot possibly be the only one, but I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t run into anyone who knows this story.
Pasquino, The Talking Statue
In 1501 while renovations were being done on Rome’s Palazzo Braschi, an Hellenic statue from the 3rd century B.C was discovered. He was very damaged but also very noteworthy as he was one of the original statues from Domitians’ Stadium. Domitian’s Stadium was built in 85 A.D, centuries later Piazza Navona was built over its ruins. (You can read more about it in this blog post or in detail in my book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome.) The statue known as Pasquino was kept in place and the tiny piazza where he stands, adjacent to Piazza Navona, was renamed Piazza Pasquino.
There are several stories about who the statue is. When I have researched him I’ve read that he is a Greek hero, possibly Menelaus, Ajax or Achilles. When the story of the statue was first told to me it was a story of Achilles, so despite the statue resembling a series of Menelaus carrying the body of Patroclus, that was then argued to be Ajax carrying Achilles, I stick with the first story I was told:
The Story Behind The Statue Of Pasquino
If you really look into the face of the statue there is something quite haunting about it. In fact with this story you can sense the anguish in every aspect of the body.
Achilles and Patroclus were both lovers and comrades fighting against the Trojans. On this day Achilles who feels slighted by Agamemnon decides not to fight, and Patroclus convinces him to let him go in his place, leading the Mirmidon army wearing Achilles armor.
Patrolcus wins the battle but is killed by Hector. The statue tells the moment when the distraught and agonized Achilles has run out to the battlefield and scooped up the body of his beloved.
There are lots of missing body parts, such as Achilles right arm, but if you follow through you can see his splayed right hand holding onto the torso of Patroclus, whose dead body arches back from us. Were the statue intact we would see Achilles’ left arm supporting the upper body as the deadweight of Patroclus falls away. It was explained to me that Achilles is turning his head away, howling in anguish. So, of course that’s what I see when I look at him.
There is a statue very similar to this in Florence’s Loggia di Lanzi, of Menelaus supporting the body of Patroclus. If you look at it, or at pictures of it, you can follow the bodies in this statue. The Florence Menelaus is thought to be one of 15 statues is the Pasquino Group.
In this statue King Menelaus’ helmet is wrong, the angles on the bodies aren’t quite the same as Pasquino’s, but you get the idea, and Patroclus’ replacement left arm is all out of whack.
How Pasquino Got His Name
The origins of the statue being named Pasquino are also varied. He could be named for a character in one of Boccaccio’s short stories, I’ve heard he was named for a school principal back in the 1500s who looked like him, and I’ve been told he was named for a local artisan who wrote funny verses. Regardless, our Achilles is known as Pasquino and the piazza is named after him.
In the 16th century and no doubt long before that Romans would show their displeasure and outrage at the corruption of the church and its officials by leaving notes hanging on the statues in the night. These became known as Rome’s Talking Statues. Pasquino wasn’t the first, but he became the most celebrated. Signs with scathing yet satirical verses would be hung around his neck in the night so the working people could see them on their way to work in the morning before the guards could take them down. The notes became known as Pasquinate.
Pasquinate became a way of winning elections too. One side would pay the authors to write about their enemies on the other side. The practice actually spread out all over Italy.
Prominent figures began to despise Pasquino. The popes were the main targets and they thought up ways to get rid of him. One of my favorite themes is Popes Behaving Badly, which coincides beautifully with one of Pasquino’s most prevalent themes, criticism of the Popes’ “prostitution luxury”. Pope Hadrian VI wanted Pasquino thrown in the Tiber River, Popes Sixtus V and Clement VIII also tried to get rid of him, and Benedict XIII even had a night watchman stand guard with punishments for those caught including branding, incarceration and death.
The more they tried to silence Pasquino, the more Pasquinate appeared on other statues throughout Rome.
Today Achilles/Pasquino still gets signs hung around his neck. Locals are allowed to fix signs to his pedestal but not to his or Patroclus’ bodies.
This sign is written in Romanesco, which is a local dialect. It rhymes both in Romanesco and in Italian, but not in English. Translated it says:
It is no longer the moment to obey. Defend your destiny with verve (fight for your destiny) Even if it’s at the expense of dying, don’t let yourself be treated like a puppet.
Every day he has a different sign. It is placed there in the night or the very early morning and tends to be gone by afternoon.
Piazza Pasquino is next to Piazza Navona on the other side of the Museo di Roma.
If you are part of my Private Members Newsletter check your inbox for my favorite restaurant here by Pasquino. It is a cult favorite and is just fantastic! Also my private members will be getting stories about Rome’s other 5 “Talking Statues”. They are quite fabulous. You can join the Private Members Newletter here