From Public Books:
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
Link to the rest at Public Books