ROME — Historically, there is one man in Rome whose good side you always want to be on. He’s not the mayor of the week. He’s not the chef at the triple-starred restaurant La Pergola. He’s not even the pope.

All Romans know there’s no one more uncouth, quick-witted, pungent, poignant and popular in the city than Pasquino.

Pasquino is a statue, sure, not a man. Yet the numerous posters, pamphlets and poems attached to its marble base, known as the “pasquinate,” have given a voice to the volatile Roman mood for hundreds of years.

The Italian journalist and literary critic, Giorgio Manganelli, described “pasquinate” as “an anonymous aggression in verse” that usually contains lewd and impudent language directed against the pontificate.

Sound familiar? A couple weeks ago, on February 4, posters representing Pope Francis with a deep frown appeared all around the Vatican in Rome, with the caption:

A France’, hai commissariato Congregazioni, rimosso sacerdoti, decapitato l’Ordine di Malta e i Francescani dell’Immacolata, ignorato Cardinali… ma n’do sta la tua misericordia?”

(“Ah Francis, you’ve taken over congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored Cardinals… but where’s your mercy?”)

If Pasquino were indeed a man and not a statue, he would laugh. After all, this is right up his ally. Like the “pasquinate,” the posters were anonymous, written in roman dialect (at least in the opening and closing of the sentence) and directed at Pasquino’s favorite target: the pope.

This is not to say that the two are in any way connected. But the posters, both in essence and in form, fall into a long tradition of Vatican-Roman communication that deserves to be contextualized.

The Origins of Pasquino

The statue known today as Pasquino was unearthed in 1501 while excavating for the construction of Rome’s Palazzo Braschi, near Piazza Navona. Dating back to the Hellenistic period (III b.C.), the sculpture represents mangled parts of two figures, probably Menelaus and Patroclus (characters from the Iliad.)

The defaced statue was placed casually near Piazza Navona, to watch the daily comings and goings of the Roman citizens during the Renaissance.

Engraving representing Pasquino (Credit: Nicolas Beatrizet 1550 c. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)
Engraving representing Pasquino (Credit: Nicolas Beatrizet 1550 c. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)
According to tradition, Pasquino was an artisan – probably a barber, tailor or cobbler – who kept shop in the area. He had a large number of shop boys who helped him cater to many prelates and ecclesiastic representatives, and was well known for using his privileged access to deliver satire against the Roman Curia.

Pasquino and his shop boys were so good at directing insults at eminent Romans that they gained citywide notoriety.

“In time it became common usage and a saying to attribute to Master Pasquino what happens in the soul of every man, that is to unmask the infamy of the ecclesiastical leaders and regulars at court,” Lodovico Castelvetro wrote in his book Ragione d’alcune cose (“The Reasons for Some Things”) toward the end of the XVI century.

We don’t know what happened to Pasquino, but historians believe that after his death his shop boys continued his legacy by hanging satirical and anti-clerical messages around the neck of the maimed statue by night.

Pasquino might no longer have been there to take the brunt of clerical retaliation, but the statue that had witnessed the rise and fall of empires would live on.

Pasquino v. Pope

One of the first popes who fell victim of Pasquino’s merciless satire was Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia. Poking fun at a Borgia is no difficult task, considering that the entire family seemed to make it a point of giving Romans ample material to work with, from adultery to incest, from extravagance to nepotism.

When the Borgia pope died, Pasquino was quick to react. A note on the statue read:

“The cause of death? Poison, by God, poison,

That brought life and salvation to the human race.”

Nor was Pasquino forgiving of his successor, Julius II, considered a warmonger and more interested in Vatican territories rather than the apostolate. A “pasquinate” read:

“Destiny made a mistake, Julius, in giving you the keys.

He would have done better by giving you the club.”

In the golden age of Roman political satire there were five other statues that would often entertain conversations with each other, poking fun at anyone, deserving and undeserving. They were Madama Lucrezia, the Abbot Luigi, the Facchino, the Babuino and Marforio near the Capitoline Museum.

Marforio was Pasquino’s main interlocutor. During the pontificate of Leo X (1513-1521) they exchanged:

MARFORIO: “How’s business?”

PASQUINO: “Wonderful, Marforio. The Fools are in charge.”

Poems, letters, prose and even satirical pictures were posted under the statue of Pasquino. The mood and tone served as a thermometer for the political sentiment among the Romans.

The humor was sometimes dark; when Clement VII died after a long illness, a drawing of his doctor – whose practice might have hastened the pontiff’s passing – was captioned:

“Here is he who takes away the sins of the world.”

The Roman’s dark and cynical sense of humor brought Pasquino to life, making him an un-punishable judge of the clergy’s often immoral or tyrannical behaviors.

During conclaves, Pasquino would give his best, becoming the forum where the powerful Roman families fought a battle of slander and wit in order to attack or defend a candidate.

Iconic and meme-like sayings were born this way, such as: “What the barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did,” written in reference to Urban VIII’s alleged use of bronze from the Pantheon to build the baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Pasquino’s goal was never to destroy the pontificate or the clergy. It was an effort to drag everyone through the mud, thus making all equals in ridicule.

“The system itself is not under attack. It is the essential prerogative for the existence of the Talking Statues and of their voice. It is an ironic, sarcastic and shamelessly cruel laughter obscenely aimed at undermining power,” Manganelli writes.

“The game consists in denouncing the immorality and oppression of those at the top, in order to discredit them and take their place.”

Censorship and executions

Sometimes Pasquino went too far. It was Adrian VI, the last “foreign” pope before St. John Paul II, who wanted the foul-mouthed statue gone once and for all and ordered it to be thrown into the Tiber River.

The Curia stopped him, knowing that the Roman citizens would not take kindly to the destruction of their political outlet and for fear that they might find another and more violent one.

Benedict XIII, dubbed “the protector of scoundrels” by Pasquino, also tried to put a muzzle on the irreverent Romans. He ordered that guards watch over the statue day and night and issued an edict sanctioning the death penalty for whoever wrote “pasquinate.”

Antonio Paleario was accused of writing verses against the Holy Inquisition and was burned alive. Niccolò Franco, writer and secretary to the famous author Pietro Aretino, was not deterred and wrote many “pasquinate” against Cardinal Carlo Carafa and Pope Pius V.

The most irreverent was a plaque hanged over a latrine that read:

“Pius V, having compassion for everything difficult to digest, erected this shit-house as a noble deed.”

He was hanged in Castel Sant’Angelo in 1570.

But even though the many voices and incarnations of Pasquino have come and gone, the statue survived, indestructible, the unrelenting voice of Roman malcontent and impertinence.

Pasquino reminded the popes and Curia of his invulnerability himself:

“You may burn and hang, my good Pius,

burn in the name of God.

With all your torments

You do not frighten me:

With all your power

You will not quiet me.

I am hard, of stone,

I challenge you and Satan.”

The silence of Pasquino

But Pasquino could only exist within the specific framework of the Vatican’s temporal power. After the capture of Rome in 1870, which essentially put an end to the Papal State, Pasquino became quiet. After hundreds of years of snide remarks, obscene jokes and political satire, Pasquino vanished.

Some sporadic notes were hung now and then on the now dormant statue, for example with the arrival of Hitler in Rome in 1938. Today, however, Pasquino has lost much of its relevance, and the statue that once spoke to popes and cardinals is little more than trivia for tourists.

But if you look closely and try to decipher the strong Roman dialect, you can still read the pulse of Rome’s eternal malcontent.

The recent satire directed against Pope Francis falls in line with a tradition of conflict and resolution between the pope and the city of Rome. Some popes tried shutting up the annoying voice of Pasquino, and failed. The “pasquinate” are provocations that look for strong reactions under the protective veil of anonymity.

“It’s a desperate gesture of someone desperately trying to push Francis into an act of force or censorship,” Enrico Gavalotti, professor of History of Christianity at the University G. d’Annunzio, told the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Pope Francis intelligently reacted with “serenity and detachment,” according to the Italian news agency ANSA. After all, as Sixtus V found out in the end, “they’re just Pasquinate, nothing more!”