Soapbox Speakers

Speakers’ Corner, Rome

The eternal city of Rome is littered with the remains of Speakers’ Corners. Most famous was the Roman Forum, the administrative and political Centre of Rome’s Empire. In front of the Senate House, Caesar built a ‘rostra’ from which the Caesars could address the public. Any member of the public could address the people or petition the Senate. Once a year a Tribune, representing the citizens in the forum, would be elected to address the Senate. However, speech that met the Caesar’s disapproval could lead to punishment. Cicero’s tongue was cut out and nailed to the Rostra.

Next on the list is the talking statue. The first and most famous was named “Pasquino”, which is near Piazza Navona. Apparently, during the Renaissance in 1501, Cardinal Carafa installed a small statue of Parolclus (named “Pasquino”) in a small square near Piazza Navona. The Cardinal allowed his latin students to post written poems on the statue once a year on the 25th of April. A tradition to poke fun at the Pope and the Government in Latin verse began. Any dissenting verse could have you burnt at The Stake in nearby Campo die Fiari. That was the fate of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), a martyr of Science. Pasquinata (Pasquinade) is the word Italians used for a short satire exhibited in a public place.

Another famous talking statue is named “il Bambino”. The original statue depicted a reclining Silenus – half man, half goat. But most Romans believed the statue was ugly. They called it il Babuino (a deformed Baboon). Nowadays the spray-can has superseded the quill. Graffiti gangs spray protest messages and tags on il Babuino, and they reappear after every white wash.

During Benito Mussolini’s (1883-1945) regime, free speech was punishable by a torturing dose of caster oil, or by death. Anti-Fascists were indeed brave, and many lost their lives in Rome. With the defeat of the fascistic came a free press and a newfound – but sometimes not so free – speech. Italian governments came and went but the people continued to practice free speech. 

For centuries, the Piazza del Popolo was a place for public executions, the last of which took place in 1826.

Nowadays, Piazza de Popolo is a popular meeting place for demonstrations. For a while it was choked with traffic in a sea of cars. But today, the Piazza is a pleasant pedestrian zone. Having no traffic and in close proximity to the political heart of modern Italy, Piazza del Popolo has attracted radicals like the celebrated politician Mr. Marco Pinellas (1930-2016). Marco organised huge rallies in Piazza de Popolo. He was a radical to the end. He even smoked a joint of cannabis in Piazza and in St Peter’s Square during attempts to legalise cannabis.

On your travels to Rome take a look at il Babuino, “Pasquino” and Piazza de Popolo. No doubt you will see a protest rally here or there.

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