Tracing Twitter to 16th century Rome

The ugliest statue in Rome is not easy to find. Tucked away in an alley off of Piazza Navona, blending in to the unremarkable stone façades of the buildings behind him, Pasquino, a human-shaped stump of marble resting on a pedestal pasted with notes and cartoons, hides in plain sight from most tourists who saunter past on their way to this district’s many renowned restaurants, bars, and cafes. But what is hardly a landmark for travelers is for Italians a symbol of free speech.

I have been thinking about Pasquino a lot lately as I read stories about social media and pseudonyms, the so-called “nym wars.” Social media websites, such as Facebook and Google Plus, have faced criticism for banning users from using pseudonyms on their sites. On the other hand, Twitter has all but embraced anonymity and fake accounts on its service, allowing users to pose as fake politicians, CEOs, and other public figures as a form of satire or a way to air grievances without reprisal. In light of the recent irreverent online reactions to the Italian debt crisis and the resignation of long-time Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, some Italian bloggers have referred to Internet critics as “Pasquino digitali,” a term that can be traced back to that ugly statue and its role as a tool of protest during the 16th century.Pasquino, the most famous of Rome’s “talking statues,” has been sounding off against the church, political leaders, and local affairs, for more than 500 years. Uncovered in 1501 in the Parione district, the 3rd-century B.C statue began to speak in the early 16th century shortly after a cardinal affixed some epigrams to its torso and pedestal on the occasion of St. Mark’s Day (April 25). Not long after, Roman citizens, especially those displeased with the corruption of the papacy, took a cue from the cardinal and began secretly to leave poems and verses on Pasquino decrying the actions – or inaction – of those in power. These verses, written in Latin or Roman dialect, came to be known as pasquinate, or pasquinades in English, after the ancient statue (whose own name is of unknown origin). One of the best known pasquinades ever left on Pasquino was directed at Pope Urban VIII Barberini, who is known for ordering the Pantheon stripped of its bronze tiles, which were subsequently melted down and used by the artist Bernini to create a grand baldaquin for St. Peter’s Basilica:

Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini
(What the Barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did.)

Pasquino’s success as a bulletin board for anonymous witticisms prompted more statues in Rome to begin talking. At least five other statues in Rome are known to have engaged in “conversations” with Pasquino. The most famous of these copycat statues was Marforio, who regularly posed questions to Pasquino about current events. When the statues’ conversations proved too satirical for the church, Pope Innocent X had Marforio moved to the Capitoline Museums, where he rests silently today.

Almost 500 years have passed since Romans first posted their handwritten protests on Pasquino. Even in the age of digital media, Pasquino’s base is still covered in anti-government poems, snarky asides about enemies, and complaints about community affairs. Many of these are now collected on the blog and shared @pasquinateblog. But travelers who are also passionate about Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus would do well to pay Pasquino a visit on their next visit to Rome to see social media in its earliest form.

Photo by zak mc/Flickr