These statues were are not highly prized for their artistic merit; they were bulletin boards on which clever locals could post teasing rebukes of the popes or other powerful figures. Since there were then no newspapers and censorship was taken for granted, the talking statues served as places in which to post pungent criticism—anonymously, of course.
That Pasquino happens to be a statue of the torso of Menelaus does not matter: the important point is what the messages attached to him had to say. So widely circulated did some of the attached messages become that Pasquino himself has acquired a degree of fame: the word “pasquinade” has made it into English to refer to a pithy satire or lampoon, especially if displayed in public.
The most famous pasquinade lampooned Pope Urban VIII of the Barberini family for taking the beautiful bronze off of the Pantheon so Bernini could use it to build a huge altar canopy in the new St. Peter’s. It went like this:
Quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini. That is,
What the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.
Others went after two popes whom one cannot imagine will ever make it to heaven. One is Pope Alexander VI of the infamous Borgia family; the other is Pope Julius II, whose uncle was also a pope and built the Sistine Chapel.
Alexander was suspected of all sorts of crimes, including poisoning his enemies. Then, when Alexander died, it was suspected that he too might have been poisoned. Pasquino then had this to say,
The cause of death? Poison, by God, poison,
Which now brought life and salvation to the human race.
As for Julius, he was known as “the Warrior Pope,” and he sometimes donned armor and personally led the papal army. According to the Book of Matthew, Christ gave to Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and according to tradition, these keys were passed down from one pope to the next. But given Julius’ military bent, Pasquino said,
Destiny made a mistake, Julius, in giving you the keys.
He would have done better by giving you the club.
In time, other statues began to talk, partly because the authorities started watching Pasquino to see who was posting what. After Pasquino, the most important talking statues were Marforio, Madama Lucrezia, Abbot Luigi, Il Babuino, and Il Facchino. You can find pictures of them and their locations at this site: http://www.romeartlover.it/Talking.html.
A free press has made the talking statues less important, but there was no free press in 1938 when Hitler was coming to town, so a few brave souls expressed their dismay on Pasquino. Less daring posts continue to appear even today.
So this is the general story of the Talking Statues and the reasons tourists like to hear about them.
I raise the subject partly to give emphasis to this added point, which is characteristic of my approach in its entirety: the talking statues don’t really talk, but other statues do, and it is to them that we most need to listen. The so-called talking statues are merely platforms on which people with something on their mind used to express themselves, a bit like Twitter or Facebook today. Their pasquinades were sometimes memorable, but the statues themselves have nothing to do with the content if what was posted on them.
On the other hand, Rome’s other statues and works of art must deliver their message directly, by themselves, generally without captions or other text. Michelangelo’s Pietà helps us understand directly what Christian piety and pity are, the statue of Marcus Aurelius bids us think of the full range of qualities needed for good political and military leadership, and the Bruno statue tries to win our support for a society based on free thought rather than religious authority.
The messages pinned to the talking statues were often clever and were always easy to understand: the ones expressed through Roman art aspire to convey more probing lessons but require interpretation.