Unusual In Rome ~ Why You Need To See The Talking Statues

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.

Pasquino, the Talking Statue Of Rome
Pasquino, The Talking Statue of Rome

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.

Pasquino's face, Rome
Pasquino/Achilles looking away from the body of Patroclus

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.

Pasquino the talking Statue of Rome
See the remains of Achille’s hand on Patroclus’ torso?

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.

Menelaus with Patroclus in the Loggia di Lanzi, Florence.

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.

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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.

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Pasquino’s Signs

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.

Pasquino the talking statue of Rome
Pasquino’s sign one morning in September 2019

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

Secret Rome: Why You Need To See Ara Pacis

At the time of publishing this post the world is under a travel ban due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I have chosen to keep publishing stories about traveling to Italy for three reasons. The first is that one day hopefully sooner rather than later, the world will open back up to travel, making this a great time to learn about more places we want to visit and what to see when we get there.   

Secondly I hope this will change the way we travel. Hopefully cruise ships and big bus tours and the mass tourism they bring will become a thing of the past, replaced by a more sustainable means of travel that involves smaller groups of people with a germane interest in discovering new places, rather than the masses descending on any city to check it off their bucket list. Third, in this time of crisis our minds need a place to escape to, even if only for a few minutes. So let’s escape to Italy together.

Ara Pacis

This is one of those completely fantastic secrets in Rome that’s hiding in plain sight. Even when Rome is bursting at the seams with tourists you will find very few people here. It is one of my absolute favorites and I wrote about it in detail in my best selling book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome. (Find it in the 13 Places To Discover Ancient Rome chapter)

The Ara Pacis in Rome. A celebration of peace brought by Emperor Augustus
The Ara Pacis in Rome

The Ara Pacis was built around 13 B.C to commemorate Augustus’ victorious return to Rome. Rome had been mired in decades of civil war, and had spent centuries at war with other countries. Augustus ended all the fighting, bringing about the first time of peace in years at the same time becoming the most powerful man in history.

Originally it stood at the northeast corner of the Campus Martius. The altar was angled so that at sunset on Augustus’ birthday the shadow of the point of the obelisk in the Campus Martius would fall onto the Ara Pacis, symbolizing that he was born to bring peace to Rome. He really was a master of propaganda!

Centuries later the Tiber river was expanded and over time the Ara Pacis, in all of its white marble glory, became submerged in 4 meters of mud. It disappeared for more than 1000 years.

2000 year old carvings on the back wall of Ara Pacis in Rome
2000 year old carvings on the back wall of Ara Pacis

In the 16th century fragments of it were found under an old palazzo. More were discovered in the 1800’s.

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In 1937 the Italian cabinet decided to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birth by excavating the altar. 70 cubic meters of ground (beneath what at the time was the Cinema Nuovo Olimpia) were frozen and the altar was extracted.

When you visit the Ara Pacis you can see what a colossal undertaking that must have been. Working with comparatively few fragments and only a short amount of time, it’s amazing what they were able to achieve.

The Richard Meier designed Ara Pacis Museum
The Richard Meier designed Ara Pacis Museum

Buildings surround the mausoleum of Augustus were razed and the Ara Pacis was placed in its current location. It initially was protected by a pavilion but in 2006 got its current, very modern Richard Meier designed building. The building looks pretty incongruous surrounded by old Rome, but once you go inside you can appreciate the genius of it. There is an overwhelming amount of natural light, maximizing the magnificence of the altar.

Ara Pacis in Rome is bathed in natural light
Ara Pacis bathed in natural light

The Ara Pacis is both beautiful and majestic. A set of stairs lead up to the altar, all encased in white marble walls which are covered in carvings.

Carvings on the exterior of Ara Pacis in Rome
The right hand exterior of the Ara Pacis

The museum itself is really good. Entirely dedicated to the Ara Pacis, it is interactive and relatively small. Everyone working there is really well informed and incredibly helpful too.

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Ara Pacis carvings explained
One of the maps inside the Ara Pacis museum in Rome

This past summer while there I had a list of obscure things I wanted to find in the carvings that line the exterior of the marble walls. One of the guards came over, as this was his specialty. There were only a handful of visitors at the museum, so he was able to spend a half hour with me, going back and forth from the maps and interactive screens to the altar itself, finding the items on my list and pointing out missing pieces in between.

Agrippa and Julia on the exterior of Ara Pacis in Rome
Agrippa, Gaius and Julia on the exterior of Ara Pacis

I speak Italian relatively well, but I don’t speak archeological Italian, and he spoke only a little English, but was fully invested in helping me, taking me back to the English translations at the interactive area when we got stuck.

It really was a fantastic experience!

The windows look out over the Mausoleum of Augustus which is being restored but will be open to the public soon.

Mausoleum of Augustus renovations
The Mausoleum of Augustus, once the grandest building in Rome, is under renovation and will open to the public in 2022

I recommend first reading the Ara Pacis section of my Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome book to get some context of who Augustus was, who all the players that show up here are, and why their stories are so interesting. This will make discovering the different people represented on the walls of the Ara Pacis extra interesting.

You can take a virtual tour of Ara Pacis here

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You will probably only spend half an hour or so here. It is an easy walk from the Piazza Navona/Campo di Fiori area, is only a few minutes’ walk along the river to the Bridge of Angels and Castel Sant’ Angelo (in front of St Peters) and is just across the river from Trastevere.

Address: Lungotevere in Augusta, Rome

Do you belong to my Private Members Newsletter? It’s free to join, and you only hear from me twice a month. For news about interesting places to visit in Italy (places the tour buses don’t go to) foods to eat and fun things to do that keep you away from the crowds, you can join the newsletter HERE

Porticus of Octavia ~ Why You Need To See This Site In Rome

One of the things I love so much about Rome is that you can turn almost any corner and find yourself in the midst of some incredible set of ruins dating back to before Christ. Sometimes long, long before Christ.

Each of them seem to have a fascinating story behind them, and frequently you can trace that story across millennia to where we are now.

One of these sets of ruins dating back 2200+ years sits smack bang in the middle of Rome, mere minutes’ walk from the Forum, and although there will be literally thousands of people just up the street, you’d be lucky to find more than a dozen people wandering around and taking photos right here.

The Porticus of Octavia in Rome
The Porticus of Octavia in Rome dates back 2200 years

This is the Porticus of Octavia. It is immediately next door to the Teatro Marcello and leads you straight into the Jewish Ghetto, where you can stop for a glass of wine and some artichokes or maybe just a quick coffee on your way to somewhere else.

If you have my book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things to Do in Rome: Beyond the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps you can find more information as well as a guide to what’s in walking distance from here in the Ancient Rome section.

A Very Ancient History

Back in 179 B.C a temple to the Goddess Juno was built on this site. Then in 146 B.C a temple to Jupiter Stator was built right next to it, and the two were enclosed in the Porticus Metelli.

Fast forward 120 years and Emperor Augustus decided it was time for some renovating and gave the complex a rebuild, naming it for his sister Octavia. This is the structure we see now.

The Teatro marcello in Rome dates back to before Christ
The Teatro Marcello in Rome may well have been the prototype for the Colosseum. It was built just down the road, 84 years prior.

Octavia was the mother of Marcellus, namesake of the theater next door.

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Murder In The Family

Just to make things even more interesting, Augustus’ wife Livia is thought to have killed Octavia’s son Marcellus to knock him out of the running to be Emperor. Basically everyone who potentially came between her own son Tiberius and the  job of emperor mysteriously died, including in the end Augustus himself.

I go into this in the book – the story is fascinating and Livia is one of the two villainesses in my history of Rome. Of course there were more than two, but I give you one from ancient Rome and one from Renaissance Rome.

The Temples And The Art

In its time this must have been an incredible sight to see. The Teatro Marcello and the Porticus of Octavia with the two temples would have all been gleaming in the sunshine, bright white travertine.

Porticus of Octavia Rome
In its day the Porticus of Octavia would have been all gleaming white travertine. Columns form the two temples dating back 2200 years still remain.

We know from Pliny the Elder’s book A Natural History, that both the porticoes of Octavia and Metelli as well as the two temples were full of art. Statues and frescoes were abundant, and the entire area would have been beautiful.

Octavia also built a library, curia and lecture halls in this complex.

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A History of Fires

There were two notable fires here, the first in 80 A.D and was repaired by Domitian. Then in 203 A.D there was another fire which had repairs done by Septimus Severus and his maniac son Caracalla. There is an inscription along the top that names both and also says Incendio Corruptum Rest, which means restored after a fire.

Inscription on the Porticus of Octavia tells of a rebuild by Septimus Severus and his son Caracalla after a fire
The inscription across the front of the Porticus tells of the rebuild after the fire.

In 442 A.D an earthquake felled the original columns along the front, which were then replaced by the arch you see now.

The Middle Ages

After the fall of Rome the beautiful Porticus of Octavia fell to ruin and became a fish market, remaining so until the late 19th century. In 770 A.D the church of Sant’ Angelo in Pescheria was built in the back of the ruins, Translated in means Church of The Holy Angel In The Fish Market

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In my book Glam Italia! 101 fab I give you a breakdown of everything you are seeing and show you some incredibly cool details to look for, such as which stones are B.C and which correspond to the various centuries A.D.

You are also mere steps away from one of my favorite eateries in Rome, where I have spent endless evenings dining al fresco and tourist free. It’s all in the book – order your copy from Amazon today!

Want something else that’s really cool to do in Rome? I have a Free PDF of the Best Rooftop Bars In Rome. These are places with gorgeous views and wonderful drinks. Any of them are the perfect place to end a long day of sightseeing, taking in the sunset, the view and an icy cold Prosecco! Download your Best Rooftop Bars In Rome PDF HERE

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