When I arrived in Rome, a little more than a year ago, the streets of the Eternal City had emptied. Previously busy thoroughfares looked like metaphysical paintings by De Chirico: unobstructed views down vacant streets were only punctuated by the passing of a single masked pedestrian, the green flash of a pharmacy sign, or the flutter of the plastic walls of a small white tent used for COVID testing in the winter wind. The famous palatial museums and domed churches of the city were all closed. When I had previously visited Rome, in the summers to work as an archaeologist on excavations, I was always amazed by the auditory volume: how animated conversations, the clanking of bottles, and the sound of wheels over cobblestones echoed off tall apartment buildings. But in January 2021, it was possible to hear a siren from an out-of-sight ambulance or the sound of a newscaster filtering out of a window, announcing the most recent totals: 80,000 dead.
And the numbers were rising again. The plateau of deaths achieved by the first strict lockdown had more than doubled. On December 3, 2020, 993 patients died in one day, the highest daily toll since the start of the pandemic. As I walked through the Trastevere neighborhood—normally full of tourists and those catering to them—I saw a bar famous for its normally raucous crowds and cheap beers, now shuttered. Above it hung a large paper sign, posted during the strict lockdown months before. It read “Ci vorrebbe un miracolo” (we need a miracle). The paper was tattered and starting to sag.
Nearby, but on the other side of the river, was the reason I’d come. I was in Rome to work on my dissertation project about ancient sculpture, and in particular one ancient Roman statue now known as “Pasquino.” Unlike most of the very old statues I study, this fragmentary monument still stands outside at nearly the spot where it was excavated 521 years ago. But in a city full of ruins, this one meant something special.
The first time I saw the Pasquino on the 2021 trip, I found that I was alone with the sculpture. Several small pieces of paper were taped to its plinth. Like the “We need a miracle” sign, these notes were torn and hard to read, evidently posted days or weeks before.
Rome is covered in graffiti to such an extent that posted and scrawled words on buildings in the city center seem to be simply part of the city’s carefully maintained patina, like the peeling orange and yellow plaster facades of Baroque buildings or the characteristic black cobblestones known as pietrini. Most of the posted notes were written in Italian. The appearance of an acrostic regarding Trump did not seem unusual in light of a failed coup just a few days before on my own Capitol Hill back home.
However, I knew from my interest in the Pasquino statue that the practice of posting such notes on it was not new. In fact, the people of Rome have been leaving notes on the monument for over half a millennium.
During the pandemic, the Pasquino statue filled a needed gap in communication among the housebound Romans—a gap it has filled, in one way or another, for centuries.
The next time I saw the Pasquino, this centuries-old tradition was in full effect. The night before, an Italian American artist had covered the statue’s entire plinth in strips of butcher paper as part of a guerilla installation. The brown paper was punctuated by anonymous quotes written in black marker, mostly in English, which the artist had collected online. This work was inspired by the same tradition that I had come to Rome to study: centuries of posting certain kinds of messages, known as pasquinades, on the Pasquino statue.
Still, most passersby kept moving.
However, by that afternoon, something curious had begun to happen: Romans were writing their own thoughts on the large butcher paper, or even attaching their own notes on small pieces of paper beside the artist’s. These began as small additions: a pair of initials, an “I love you,” or a crude drawing. However, the notes did not stop there.
When I returned the next day, there were more, including lines about politics written in the Roman dialect. Although the intervention had been initiated by a visitor, the relative lack of tourists in Rome created a unique situation: the Pasquino had reverted to a venue largely for Romans by Romans. The artist’s installation and the further contributions had a sort of magnetic effect, drawing in pedestrians and spurring the addition of more and more notes. Many were clearly by children: “I want everyone to be happy.” Many focused on the pandemic: “Go away COVID!”
Not all of the lines were appropriate or even legible. But I thought of how, even back in the 16th century, the people of Rome—whether born there, living there, or just visiting—had decided for centuries to document such writing. I felt that these should be similarly documented. I returned to the monument each day to photograph the notes and meet the locals who would gather to read them.
The Pasquino monument witnessed the vicissitudes of empire, including a plague and multiple waves of religious persecution. When comparing ancient and modern events, there is always a danger of drawing false or simplistic parallels. But it is easy to see how history can repeat itself in the Eternal City.
The statue is likely about 1,900 years old. And, although broken, the original composition is still known: the statue represents the recovery of a fallen Homeric hero from behind enemy lines during the Trojan War. In the sculpture, the living warrior’s head twists dramatically to look behind him as he drags the corpse of his dead comrade: he is not yet safe.
Perhaps the dead warrior lifted from the ground was Achilles, or his ill-fated companion Patroclus. Either way, the image would have spurred an ancient Roman viewer to do the “right” thing: to be brave against all odds, to be dutiful to their country and comrades, and to recover and respectfully bury the bodies of the dead.
The marble copy of the statue from the Parione district in Rome was originally displayed near the Stadium of Domitian. This was a huge boat-shaped building, built around the year 80 CE, that was used to entertain the Roman masses with Greek-style footraces and other athletic events.
Some hundred years after the stadium was built, in the second century CE, Roman soldiers returning from campaigns in the east brought a new illness home with them, likely smallpox. As many as two thousand people died in the city of Rome each day in the year 189 CE. Some historians estimate that up to 10 percent of the empire’s total population was felled, including the co-emperor Lucius Verus. Spurred by this catastrophe and a series of other political and economic crises late in the Roman Empire, the demographics of Rome began to shift. Christians were publicly executed in stadiums like Domitian’s; their deaths served as entertainment alongside games.
As paganism and Christianity coexisted, clashed, and eventually reversed prominence, the arches of the stadium were occupied, becoming housing for the poor. The grand building’s large stone blocks were mined and robbed for other building projects. Eventually a neighborhood was built around and on top of what was left. Although the stadium was no longer recognizable, the neighborhood came to be called Parione (big walls), still the name of the area today.
In the course of this transformation from stadium into neighborhood, some marble sculptures were pulled down and burned to create lime mortar. Others, like the Pasquino statue, were broken and buried.
Over the course of nearly a millennium, the city of Rome gradually depopulated and the residents of the once-crowded capitol became more agrarian and dispersed. Floods of the Tiber River and continual inhabitation adapted, covered, and obscured much of the ancient imperial city. The long narrow space of the stadium transformed into an open dirt-filled area known as Piazza Navona (meaning “boat”).
The development of the Navona market spurred the construction of grand palazzi around the piazza’s huge boat-shaped exterior. Preserved ancient building foundations from the stadium and large stone blocks discovered in the area conveniently provided the requisite building materials. During one such project at the turn of the 16th century, the Pasquino statue was uncovered.
However, by the time it was excavated in the Renaissance, the marble sculpture was so battered that its figures were nearly impossible to parse. Despite its poor state of preservation, the statue’s importance as an ancient object ensured that it could not be discarded. So it was installed on a modest plinth just around the corner from the market, where it still stands.
The tradition began one generation after the development of the Piazza Navona market. This was at the turn of the 16th century, when students at the nearby university posted Latin couplets on the statue for the Feast Day of Saint Mark, the patron of scribes and printers. Accompanying these poems, the statue would be dressed as a mythological character such as Janus, Hercules, or Mars. Soon a “Feast of the Pasquino” was established in April, in conjunction with the saint’s day.
This practice quickly expanded beyond its elite origins. Soon, Romans from a variety of social strata began to post anonymous notes, written from the point of view of the statue itself. By attaching a collectively formed persona to the statue, they made the character of Pasquino the “author” of the notes, called “pasquinades,” often written in Latin or local dialect.
Within a decade of the earliest poems, the Piazza di Parione, now dubbed Piazza di Pasquino, had become a popular place for posting and gathering to read and enjoy anonymous criticism of the powers that be and current events. The statue increasingly became an observer and watchdog of the city, and his plinth evolved into a site of resistance where Romans could express their discontent.
The earliest notes posted on the Pasquino do not survive. They are preserved because local printers began collecting and publishing them in yearly anthologies, beginning around 1507. The anthologies were often organized around a theme associated with Renaissance current events: the shifting alliances of the Holy League, the death of a prominent cardinal, etc. At the beginning of the anthology a woodblock-printed frontispiece would show the Pasquino statue “in character,” wearing one of the costumes used on the Feast Day of Saint Mark.
In the winter of 1510, seven years before reformer Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, he visited Rome. At the time, Bramante was designing a dome of unprecedented proportions for Pope Julius II’s basilica of St. Peter and Michelangelo’s campaign in the Sistine Chapel was half completed. The young priest came to the Eternal City as a representative meant to settle a status dispute within the Order of Saint Augustine. Luther intended to make a short visit but was detained due to ongoing papal military efforts to control central Italy spearheaded by “warrior pope” Julius. These additional weeks in the city, spent confronting lavish building projects, factored into Luther’s growing antagonism toward the papacy.
Many of Julius’s projects—including those in St. Peter’s—were funded by the sale of indulgences (a full or partial remission of punishment for a sin, granted for a fee). The soon-to-be-reformer’s frustrations were shared by a local critic. Unable to safely speak their mind on the contentious issue, they let the Pasquino statue speak for them, posting the following lines:
A fraudulent merchant is known
it is Pope Julius who sold to the simpletons
a heaven that he himself does not have.1
In an age of extreme censorship, such words could never be shared publicly aloud. But the author could be protected by attributing the lines to the statue.
Leveraging humor in the face of adversity, pasquinade poems also lampooned various topics including corrupt ruling classes, pandemics, a harsh criminal justice system, and religious persecution. Aptly, the character of Pasquino often remarked that he was impervious to many of the dangers that his animators faced; a pasquinade from the reign of Gregory XIII (r. 1572-85) asserts that “Felice me che son di marmo” (I am happy to be made of marble).
Near the Pasquino is another monument—the Fountain of Four Rivers—made in the 17th century by the famed Gian Lorenzo Bernini. On my previous visits, the roar of the fountain had been complemented by the squeals of children on bicycles, the conversations of families eating gelato, and the cries of caricaturists and hawkers selling small souvenirs. Without their target audience, none of the vendors were present now.
Perhaps this somber arrival for me at the Four Rivers was only appropriate, as when the fountain was first inaugurated, the people of Rome were starving. The city had been plagued by famine for two years, and Bernini’s elaborate project had been funded at public expense. In response, one frustrated Roman posted on the Pasquino monument around the corner:
Noi volemo altro che guglie e fontane: pane volemo, pane, pane, pane
We do not want other obelisks and fountains, we want bread, bread, bread, bread.
Again, the statue spoke aloud what the people could only whisper.
Centuries later, the Pasquino hadn’t stopped speaking. But the addition of a paper collar had opened the door for it to firmly enter the era of the pandemic. Still, I believe that even without this addition, something else would have catalyzed Pasquino. The statue, after all, was filling a needed gap in communication among the housebound Romans—a gap it has filled, in one way or another, for centuries.
Among those writing were local artists, exchange students, retirees, a “pod” of children on a scavenger hunt. When I asked about the meaning of notes, many of the locals seemed both excited and mystified that someone with such bad Italian would know anything about “Maestro Pasquino.” However, I must have seemed ignorant and innocuous enough that an older couple was happy to explain a Roman in-joke about old sports rivalries among the regional soccer teams.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I started leaving index cards and markers at the monument, which would inevitably go missing, but only after a new crop of notes appeared. Although many of the original butcher paper bands had fallen, the momentum of the new notes did not appear to be slowing down. Pasquino was on a roll. Another scholar and I watched as some men in their thirties wearing puffer jackets surveyed the crowded plinth, removing notes they felt were unsavory, gesticulating at us, “These aren’t for kids!” We nodded seriously, but I was secretly thrilled to see the self-regulation of the pasquinades in real time.
Although some very bawdy pasquinade poems were preserved in personal correspondence, the printed Renaissance anthologies seem to have also omitted the less kid-friendly additions and tend to be relatively polite. However, not all were happy with the statue becoming so busy now. Responding to Mayor Virginia Raggi’s ill-fated public works campaign, one new note read, “Virginia, clean me up!” I was excited that it was written in the historical fashion: from the point of view of the monument itself.
On the night of Sunday, March 14, we got the news: a second lockdown tomorrow. It would be impossible to freely walk through the city; police would be stationed in the streets checking “self-declaration” forms. The measures would start in a few hours, at midnight.
I was at the northern end of the city when I learned the news, first in a text from a friend, followed by the buzz of news notifications. As my phone began to ding and illuminate with messages, I began my brisk walk south along the Tiber toward Parione. I had the sense that the recent crowds gathering around the Pasquino would have something to say.
Thousands of Romans were also out, making last-ditch efforts to see friends and soak up the human contact that they had missed so much during the first lockdown. The city felt like it was at a crescendo, with crowds spilling out from church to the news on their phones and friends meeting in the streets, their faces flushed above masks.
When I arrived at the Pasquino statue it was around 11:00, an hour before our new reality. I saw some now-familiar faces from the neighborhood whom I had met in my visits over the past month. An artist walking his dog invited me to join him and his friends for a final drink at his studio. “I’m sorry, I can’t,” I remember saying. “I don’t live in Parione, I won’t make it back to my apartment in time!”
In that moment the piazza felt like a microcosm of Rome itself. Giddy-seeming teenagers were scrawling notes for each other to post on the statue, music was playing from phone speakers, and an older gentleman who was standing nearby asked me if I wanted a song. Of course! (The occasional tendency of older Italians to sing in public remains magical to me.) When he finished, I thanked him, snapped a few final photos, and checked my watch. 11:40, gotta run!
We woke up to a quiet city: lockdown was in place. In my apartment building the tone was somber. The only permissible ways to leave your home were essential errands or exercise. I stayed within a two-block radius for the first few days.
Later in the week, I made a rushed “exercise walk” past the statue. I was outside my permitted kilometer radius from my apartment and technically breaking the rules. I didn’t take any photos in case a nearby police officer suspected my motivations were anything other than salutary, but I observed that the city public works department had heeded the call of the disgruntled pasquinade writer: all the notes and the remaining brown-paper strips had been removed from the statue. Just as the city was silenced, so was the Pasquino. Only small pieces of tape and a few corners of paper were left as a testament to the palimpsest that had developed over the previous three weeks.
I thought of a photo one of my professors had recently sent me from New York City of an entire telephone pole covered in vaccination stickers. The bright agglomeration seemed like a celebration: all of these people vaccinated! In Italy, most were still waiting for their first appointment, and such images were both inspirational and enviable. I wondered: at some point soon, would those many hundreds of stickers be cleaned overnight, disappearing like all of the notes on Pasquino? Would the refuse deposited this year—disposable masks and face shields, laminated vaccination cards, plastic COVID tests, even antivax bumper stickers—form a discernible layer in the archaeological record? Would future archaeologists thinking about commemoration and memorials detect the presence of our pandemic? Would someone eventually discover that layer of plastic stickers, a change in burial practice, or even a cache somewhere of all of those posted pasquinade poems? What are the material traces of this strange moment?
By mid-April we were back into a more moderate quarantine. I and many of the other foreign researchers my age were finally able to book our first vaccine appointments. It felt only appropriate that I had my injection on a plastic chair in a historic stable of a Baroque palazzo, now turned into a municipal building. Museums began to open with limited hours, and we were able to access some of the sites and archives that we had been waiting to use.
Although there was pressure to finally return to the history of the Pasquino statue in the ancient past, I still wanted to see if the brief floruit around the poems on the monument in our present day was a one-time thing, or if the locals still had more to share. A friend and I returned to post another paper collar on the plinth of the statue asking, “Romans, what would you like to say?” We deposited a few markers, and as before, our paper collar quickly filled with notes over the course of the next week. Rome was speaking again.
The second campaign at the Pasquino was shorter than the first: the city had evidently noticed what was going on. All of my further attempts to incite dialogue at the monument were quashed quickly and silently, with the new collars of paper inevitably removed by the following day.
I eventually gave up. I knew that I was already lucky to have witnessed something special. Throughout the early summer, only a few notes would remain on the plinth at a time. Although I was happy to read them, I no longer felt the need to visit every day.
The number of notes fluctuated but remained small until July 14, when the plinth transformed once again. This time, the sculpture became a memorial after the death of a neighborhood local, famous among friends for the anonymous pasquinade poems he had posted, evidently for decades. Briefly, the Pasquino had been returned to the inhabitants of Parione.
Flowers were laid and taped between the stone figures of the statue. The plinth was carefully decorated with photos and rhyming tributes, neatly arranged and taped. One image showed the local posting a poem; the handwriting, in all capitals, was familiar. Another large photograph zoomed in close to his face, showing him laughing. The imprint of a pink lipstick kiss on the photograph was visible. Respectfully, these additions were not covered over, graffitied, or removed as our paper collars had been.
At the beginning of August my fellowship ended, and I returned to the US. When I went to pay my last visit to the Pasquino sculpture on the day of my flight, I was worried it would feel like a breakup. But when I arrived, I was instead relieved. There were some new notes on the statue. Without any interventions by an interfering American lady, both Romans and visitors would continue to post pasquinades. After all, it had been going on for the past 521 years, through every type of crisis imaginable.
Recently, I was able to make a short return to Rome to tie up some loose ends for my project. I confirmed my arrival for nearly a year after that first walk through the empty city. I was curious to see how life had changed in the intervening months—and I knew exactly where to go to try to find out what Romans thought about it all.
This article was commissioned by Abigail Struhl.
- “Un fraudolento Mercator si sa, è Papa Giulio che ai baggei vendé, quel ciel che, per se stesso, egli non ha.” See Sirolesi, Pasquinate del Cinquecento (Edizioni della Citta, 1994), p. 14, author’s translation. ↩