Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Congregation of Wits


In Renaissance Rome, poetry was a weapon.  Free speech was not exactly a commonly-held value in those days – at least not by the people in charge – and it was not a very good idea to complain about politicians or popes in such a way that they knew you were the one saying those things about them.  But the Roman people had plenty on their minds, and it tended to come out in the form of scurrilous, anonymous verse.   In those days, a poetry “slam” really was a slam. 

And right around the beginning of the 16th century, these entertaining but not-very-polite poems started appearing on a statue.  In time, this first “talking statue” was joined by five others in various parts of town.  Together, they became known as the “Congregation of Wits.”  The messages were posted in the dead of night, and next morning people would cluster around to read them (or listen to them read aloud, in the years when not all were literate). 

Madama Lucrezia
For all those hundreds of years, the people in charge have wished they could silence the talking statues, but they have never completely succeeded in doing so.  Despite such 21st-century innovations as anti-graffiti paint, at least some of the statues are still finding ways to “speak,” and their barbs have been felt by leaders as recent as Berlusconi and beyond.

Il Facchino
In this post I'm going to talk a little about the history of that first statue, the redoubtable Pasquino.  In subsequent posts, I'll tell you a little about the other five:  Marforio, who used to hold conversations with Pasquino; Madama Lucrezia, the only female statue in the bunch; Il Facchino, the only one of the statues originating in the Renaissance rather than in classical times; Abbot Luigi, who has a habit of losing his head; and finally Il Babuino – The Baboon.

Abate Luigi
Il Babuino


Pasquino doesn't look like much, but he's got a good excuse.  He's been around since the 3rd century BC, though he spent a fair bit of that time underground.  He emerged during a spate of road construction in 1501, while the Parione district was being paved.  It is thought that the statue depicts Menelaus with the body of Patroclus. 

In the year in which the statue emerged, Cardinal Oliviero Carafa placed it in a small square close to Piazza Navona, a much-trafficked area.  Every year on the Feast of San Marco (April 25) the cardinal chaired a Latin poetry competition in which people posted their poems on the statue, which was often painted and dressed in different guises.  These poems were not scurrilous affairs; many were written by scholars and high-ranking Roman citizens.  (This was true even after the tone became less lofty.  Many a political point was scored by someone close to the powerful by posting an anonymous gibe at a rival or a political foe.)

And why was he called Pasquino?  Accounts differ, but one that recurs is that the original Pasquino was a tailor (or possibly a barber) in the neighborhood whose work often took him to the Vatican, where he picked up a lot of gossip and then proceeded to spread it around, adding his own acerbic comments and observations.  It's said that after the flesh-and-blood Pasquino died, his neighbors named the garrulous statue after him, in fond memory.  In fact, the little square where he resides is now called Piazza di Pasquino. 

Pasquino even has a type of literature named after him:  the pasquinade (Italian pasquinata), which is defined, naturally enough, as a satire or lampoon, originally one displayed or delivered publicly in a public place.

Pasquino's first known political post – the first that we remember, anyway – had to do with Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, and was posted in August of 1501.  Pasquino may well have been the first to “utter” the famous bon mot referring to Giulia Farnese, the pope's mistress, as “the Bride of Christ.”  He also sported a venomous dig at Giulia's brother, a cardinal, effectively calling him a pimp and brother to a slut.

Pope Alexander VI
Giulia Farnese

 It was Pope Hadrian VI (pope for only a year and a half, from 1522-1523) who inadvertently turned one talking statue into a whole congregation.  He fervently wanted to get rid of the troublesome statue, but something prevented him.  Some say it was his early death, others that he feared ridicule if he did as he threatened and tossed poor Pasquino into the Tiber.  Some said Hadrian was convinced when someone told him that like a frog, the statue would only croak louder from the river.  The pope – whoever it was at that precise moment – settled for creating draconian laws forbidding the posting of anonymous screeds, and enforced this by posting a guard at all times.  It kept Pasquino under control (for a while), but it's hard to keep a good idea down, and soon more statues, elsewhere in the city, began to find their voices. 

(Poor old Hadrian really did have to put up with a lot, though, considering he was only pope for a year and a half.  During the conclave where he was elected as successor to Pope Leo X, Pasquino managed to satirize Leo, Hadrian, and the cardinals doing the electing.)

Pope Hadrian VI
But Pasquino wasn't done talking yet.  Some of his best known remarks are from later centuries, including a famous pun during the papacy of Alexander VIII (1689-1691).  Pope Alexander's name had originally been Pietro Ottoboni, a Venetian.  Pasquino's comment was this:

“Allegrezza!  Per un papa cattivo abbiamo Otto Boni!”

Or, “Rejoice!  For one bad pope we have Eight Good Ones [Otto Boni]!”

Maybe you had to be there.

His comment on the twenty-year reign of Clement XI (1700-1721) was this:  “Dacci un papa miglior, Spirito Santo, che ci ami, tema Dio ne' campi tanto.” (“Give us a better pope, Holy Spirit, who will love us, fear God, and not live so long.”

Pietro Aretino
Pasquino associated with some famous people.  The 16th century poet, playwright, and satirist Pietro Aretino made use of Pasquino to broadcast his message, and the eminent 17th century sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini is said to have remarked that Pasquino was the finest sculpture he had ever seen – one suspects, given the statue's condition, that this judgment was made on other than aesthetic grounds.

But what of the others?  Ah, that's grist for another blog post.  Tune in again next time to learn about Marforio (the River God) and Madama Lucrezia (a priestess of Isis, but named after a king's mistress).

Images in this post are in the public domain (1) because of their age, in the case of reproductions of two-dimensional images; and (2) in the case of photos, thanks to the generosity of photographers who have removed restrictions from their work posted on Wikimedia Commons.


Anonymous said...

This is an awesome post Tinney! Thank you so much.

Tinney Heath said...

Thanks, Micori! It feels good to be poking irreverently around in history again, after a bit of a blog vacation.

Tinney Heath said...

Oops - slip of the finger. I meant "Midori," of course.