updated 5/6/2009 9:57:01 AM ET 2009-05-06T13:57:01

Rome's most irreverent statues are going to be blocked off in special fencing in an attempt to sanitize the satirical voice of the Roman people.

Currently scattered around city's center, the sculptures have been lending a platform to the lower classes of Rome for more than 500 years.

In Renaissance Rome, when strict laws punished those who spoke against the powers that controlled the city, citizens began hanging caustic comments on the statues in the dark of the night. The tradition has continued to this day.

"These important symbols of Roman vox populi are now in terrible condition," said Viviana Di Capua, president of a resident's association for Rome's historic center.

Begun to celebrate Rome's recent 2,762 birthday, the 70,000-euro ($93,600) restoration project is expected to last until the end of 2010 and is sponsored by Di Capua's group. The aim is to restore the sculptures and prohibit further postings on their facades.

"We are going to restore four of Rome's six 'talking' statues. The sculptures will not be moved, and restoration yards will be built around them," Di Capua told Discovery News.

Standing in a small square just south of Piazza Navona, the so-called statue of Pasquino is among the most damaged sculptures, but it is also the hero of the "talking statue" tradition.

"It badly needs restoration. A car has almost destroyed its pedestal," Di Capua said.

Pasquino was unearthed in 1501 during excavations in Rome's Orsini Palace. Although not much of the original sculpture remained, this eroded relic of ancient Rome, which is believed to depict the Greek warrior Menelaus supporting the slain Patroclus, was much admired by the 17th century Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who apparently considered it one of the finest antique sculptures in Rome.

The humble statue was placed near Piazza Navona by Cardinal Carafa, who held a Latin poetry contest each year and used the statue to hang and display the poems for all to see and admire. Over the years, however, more than just poetry began appearing on the statue. The work became a platform for mocking notes from the public.

Eventually, the statue became known as "Pasquino," taking its name from a neighborhood tailor with a biting wit. The tailor's and others' satirical poems and other such postings eventually became known as "pasquinate" and, in modern English, "pasquinade" now means a satirical piece of writing posted in a public place.

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Among Pasquino's earliest messages was "Quod non fecerunt Barbari fecerunt Barberini (What the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini did)."

The message was addressed to the Barberini Pope, Urban VIII, who was accused of plundering Rome's artistic heritage for his own grandiose projects.

By the mid-sixteenth century, the caustic messages on the statue carried such strong anti-papal tones that religious leaders suggested dropping the statue into the Tiber River.

But the trend of pasting messages on statues had already taken root. Circulating like underground newspapers, the acerbic commentaries spread to other statues in Rome, including those depicting Marforio, Il Facchino ("the Porter"), the Abbot Luigi, Il Babuino ("the Baboon"), and Madame Lucrezia.

Today dozen of messages are attached to Pasquino, with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi often a target. Di Capua explains the point of the cleanup project is to protect Rome's art and not necessarily to silence Rome's satirical voices.

"We are going to remove all the satirical notes from the statues. Our goal is to make people respect Rome's huge artistic patrimony. As for the pasquinades, we are setting up a Web site where the Romans can freely make their feelings known," Di Capua said.

But the aim to keep the statues clear of postings may be overly ambitious. At the house of Juliet in Verona, a similar attempt, aimed at replacing scribbled love notes with text messages, failed miserably. People continue to plaster love notes to the house.

Frank Korn, professor of classical studies at Seton Hall University and the author of "Hidden Rome," told Discovery News the statue message posting "shows the wry wit of the Roman people."

"The Romans have long had a penchant for satire, especially when its target is the government, the church hierarchy, the papal court, and the aristocracy. Even now in the 21st century pasquinading remains an immemorial Roman sport," Korn said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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