Among Rome's more colourful stories are the talking statues. The most famous is Pasquino, whose notoriety grew between the 16th and the 19th centuries.
The statue is what remains of a work from the 3rd century B.C. that once decorated the Stadium of Domitian (which stood on the exact spot and with the exact form as the Piazza Navona).
The statue's face was damaged, and it had neither arms nor legs. It is difficult to tell who the subject is: most likely, it is a hero from ancient Greece: Menelaus, Ajax, or Hercules.
It was discovered in 1501 during road work and the renovation of Palazzo Braschi in the very same piazza where it still stands today (formerly the Piazza di Parione and now the Piazza Pasquino). Cardinale Carafa was in charge of the renovations; he insisted the statue be saved even though many people felt it had little value. This is why it is found here today, with the addition of Carafa's family crest and a commemorative plaque.
But why was the statue called Pasquino? According to different stories, the name may have come from a craftsman in the district who was particularly good at composing satirical verses; others suggest that it was perhaps named after a headmaster from a nearby school whose students thought bore a striking resemblance to the statue, and so they attached those first ridiculing verses; and it is not to be excluded that the name was inspired by a character from a Boccaccio short story.
Yet it was a series of coincidences that caused this insignificant statue to become so popular and yet so hated.
Rome already had an active practice of attributing the general population's discontent to statues. During the night, notes with satirical verses attacking the most well-known public figures would be hung around the necks of statues in the busiest parts of town so that in the morning they could be seen and read by everyone before being removed by guards.
These stinging insults came to be called Pasquinate, taking the name of the statue that best demonstrated the people's discontent about corruption and abuses of power. But that's not all: these same powerful people often used the Pasquino to spread slander against their political opponents, with the authors naturally being well compensated.
In this way, Papal elections were fought with Pasquinate that aimed to curry favor with the populace.
This method of spreading insults and propaganda spread quickly throughout the rest of Italy: in Venice, by way of the Hunchback of the Rialto, to Florence, with its famous piglet in the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo.
Bombarded with satire, the most prominent figures quickly began to detest the statue and its rhymes. Being the most heavily targeted, the Popes began to think of ways to get rid of the statue.
The controversial Pope Hadrian VI tried to throw the statue in the Tiber but was stopped by his cardinals, who warned him about the possibility of the Roman populace retaliating with even stronger blasts of satire. Then, Pope Sixtus V and Pope Clemente VIII both tried to get rid of the statue, without success. When Benedetto XIII decided to install a night watchman to guard the statue, the pasquinate multiplied so exponentially that the Pope issued an edict threatening death, incarceration, and branding for anyone caught posting rhymes.
Although there were many victims, it was not enough to silence the rhymes, which were particularly critical of the Pope's "prostitution luxury".
Over time, then, Pasquino became a powerful critic of Papal court excesses. The insults tapered off only when the temporal power of the Papacy ended with the Breach of Porta Pia.
Pasquino spoke less often, but when Hitler visited Rome during the Fascist period, there was harsh criticism about the enormous costs of the pompous events thrown for the Nazi dictator. Even today, the statue doesn't fail to express itself in a stinging manner, despite repeated attempts to silence it.