Twitter may be the modern medium for short and clever political commentary, but in Rome during the Renaissance, politically-minded Romans made old statues speak. In the early 16th century, Romans began to lampoon the people in power, the popes and their agents, with satirical verses they hung on an old Roman statue in Parione square which they dubbed, in jest, Mr. Pasquino.
The statue they chose to vent their spleen on was not special. It had been dug up a few decades prior from the old Roman ruins beneath the city and left to sit in the square, a curious and silent onlooker. It depicted the Greek hero Menelaus holding a dying Patroclus, a classic scene in the ancient world but whose historical import had been completely lost in the uneducated slums of the Parione district. When the ostentatious Cardinal Olivero Carafa decided to decorate the statue with epigrams honoring St. Mark, satirically minded Romans tore them down and hung placards lampooning his gold-filagreed hypocrisy. A new era of satirical political speech was born. Mr. Pasquino would speak for them.
The hilarious idea of a smart-assed, politically-minded statue quickly caught on in Rome. Were authorities going to arrest a statue, they laughed. Anonymity and political speech went hand-in-hand for the first time on a large scale. Every night, clever satirists would avoid the papal guards and hang new placards, write on the walls and post new papers. Soon, other statues began to pop up in Rome like hashtags. Mr. Marforio spoke in the courtyard of the Capitoline, Madame Lucrezia in the Plaza of St. Mark, Abbot Luigi in the Plaza Vidoni, Mr. Porter on Lata Road, Mr. Babuino on Babuino Road. If ever there was a historical precedent to the Twitter hashtag, where people gather to voice their clever political opinions anonymously, the “talking” Renaissance statues of Rome were it.
Soon, like a Twitter hastag, the statues began to take on a political life of their own. The short satirical verses hung on Mr. Pasquino began a tradition of political lampooning called pasquinale (English: pasquinade), the Renaissance precedent to modern political satire. Voices for and against political subjects began to make their opinions known in Rome. The statues were festooned with versified messages representing a variety of political opinions, copied and disseminated throughout the city. The popes tried to eliminate the statues, but were advised against it for fear of a wider uprising. The statues had become too popular. The printer Giacomo Mazzochi began to collect the pasquinale and publish them annually in a collection that became famous throughout Europe. Later suppressed by papal edict, the publisher moved to the neutral town of Basel in the Swiss confederacy.
Today, Mr. Pasquino can still be viewed in Parione square, now Pasquino Square, in Rome, a tribute to the enduring power of short , anonymous, and satirical political messages. The plaza has long served as a meeting place for the politically and activist-minded politicos of modern Roman society. Anonymous political tracts still decorate the ancient and worn statue, which is cleaned regularly by Roman sanitation workers. Italians still respect the power of Mr. Pasquino, and his legacy as Twitter of the Renaissance.
By Steve Killings