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If Stone Could Speak-

Updated: Jul 3

Reflections on "Pasquinades, Essays from Rome's Famous Talking Statue"

A review of the book by Anthony Di Renzo -Brian Keeler

If you've been to Rome before, you'll love it even more after reading Anthony Di Renzo's new book of essays.  I confess that I love Rome, Roman history, art and architecture.   So this book is an overflowing font of Roman lore, like a Bernini statue in Piazza Navona with river gods, tritons and maenads all frolicking in delight.   The idea of an animated statue sharing wit and wisdom is also inherently appealing. I have made a practice of sketching from statues in musuems and the cavorting figures in fountains for years. As an aside, it was with amusement that the news of several years ago reported a statuary incident. The licentious and voluptous nudes in Roman fountains and statues, like those in the huge fountian at Piazza della Republica were covered up a few years back. This was done, but by who remains a mystery, so as not to offend the mores of a visiting Iranian politician. I am sure Pasquinades chuckled or cringed in this new found puritanical streak.

Above- "Evening Light- Fountain in Rome". this 6" x 24" oil of the fountain at Piazza della Republica had the bronze nudes boxed up and covered during a visit of a foreign diplomat several years ago. Known as the fountain of the Naiads, the figures were created in 1901 by Mario Rutelli.

Above- "Tiber Evening, Rome" an oil by the author

Each chapter makes Rome come alive by introducing us to many flamboyant characters and with tales of obscure and popular history.  We could not do better than have this most witty ancient Roman statue as our guide.


Let's start with a subject that is somewhat contentious, or at least problematic. the "Roma of Rome" i.e., the Gypsies. I love Pasquinades' moral compass and his verve as he defends the oppressed and downtrodden.   Chapter six, titled, "The World's People: Pasquinades defends the Roma Community '' takes a couple,  Marco and Dacia, who frequent Campo de' Fiore to sing and sell their wares.    When we've been in Rome we often stay at Rome's oldest and longest continually operating hotel on Via Biscione- near Campo de' Fiore. So this chapter and a later one on the same subject appealed to me.

Di Renzo shows us some of the oppressive treatment endured by the Roma over the years even up to today's politics, which try to impose official controls and restrictions. Just think of right wing politicians in Rome today, like Prime Minister Georgia Meloni and her Fascist leanings. Her fascist salutes, and chanting sieg heil must make Pasquinades gasp .  The result of one such episode where young thugs were burning tires and shouting. "Burn the Gypsies"  Dacia's Mother scolded them and sang a bawdy song.  The upshot, "If you entertain strangers they are less likely to kill you." 

Campo de'Fiore's signature landmark is the large bronze statue of Giordano Bruno, which stands on a tall plinth, looming over the flower vendors and market below.  Bruno was burned at the stake by a paranoid Catholic Church in the piazza in February of 1660. His crime was denying the trinity and divinity of Christ.  Intolerance runamok in other words.  It seems quite apropo for this statue of the free thinker to preside over a campo with music, color and light below- to ensure a continued place of safety for us visitors and the locals.

Anthony Di Renzo- shown above, is a professor of writing at Ithaca College. He is the author of the recent book, "Paquinades- Essays from Rome's Famous Talking Statue." He will read from his book on Saturday, July 20th at 2 pm, while pairing his passages with Keeler's paintings of Rome.

In Chapter 41, titled "Flesh and Flowers" Pasquinades waxes poetic about the campo and recalls that it periodically has been a meadow between pavings. To conclude that chapter, Pasquinades tells about the lament for Bruno's ashes as they fell because people still haggled and flirted during the burning at the stake. He ends with this lovely admonition;

"But poets rejoice because, despite the cruel heritage, Roman lovers still buy roses. Breathe deep, my friends, and savor the scent. The dead are pollen in the wind."

Above- "Campo de'Fiore Rome " a plein air oil by Brian Keeler depicting the famous flower market with the statue of Girodano Bruno.

Pasquinades ends this chapter on the Roma with a lament, recalling incidents when rowdy soccer fans hurled  beer bottles at the vendors and yelled."Gitani!"  Pasquino, a statue too, finds common cause with the bronze of Bruno.  "If I had arms,  I would chisel these words on the pedestal, Once again it is heresy in Rome to defend the other worlds, other peoples."  Bruno was looking into outer space and challenging the earth-centic idea of the cosmos held dear by the Catholics of the day- hence other worlds and other peoples.

Above- " Piazza Navona, Rome". A small oil by Brian Keeler depicting the statue that is also used on the cover of Di Renzo's new book about Rome.

Speaking of Gitani, gypsies or Zingari, these terms have become a cause of dispute in some quarters.  I play in a gypsy swing band here in Ithaca called Zingology.  The term gypsy jazz is used around the world to describe the music of Django Reinhardt.   Recently two young visitors to our gallery on the Commons here in Ithaca took exception to our sign advertising the upcoming gig.  Apparently gypsy is regarded as a racial slur to some. What would Pasquinades think? 

World War II, fascism, mythology, Fellini, T.S Elliott and Mama Magnani, kings, queens, popes and restaurants are all covered between these covers.  But the wonderful obscure facts and arcane history that the statue, Pasquinades has witnessed are part of the unexpected delights of this book.  I initially thought the statue's name must have something to do with Easter, as it resembles Pasquale. But Di Renzo explains that a pasquinade has come to mean a sarcastic pronouncement made with an amusing turn of phrase.  A satire or a lampoon might be more to the point.  But, as Di Renzo claims to be the statue's secretary- we feel a certain kindness or good-heartedness to his observations.  We gather that Pasquinades is also on the right side of history too with his two millenium worth of wisdom to share with us.

We may think of another method of venting in Italy, where anonymous tips could alert authorities to scofflaws, traitors or worse. This is the bocche di leone or lion's mouth, which was a complaint box in Renaissance Venice. The box allowed residents to slip in pieces of paper with slanderous accusations or suspicious accounts. Leonardo da Vinci was brought low by a similar anonymous tip in Florence and spent time in jail as a result.

As Jean Mackin, another Ithacan and author observes,

 "He writes like an angel (a somewhat sardonic, mischievous one) and always with an eye for the great narrative, the indispensable detail, the juiciest tidbits from two thousand years of city gossip."

Above- a watercolor painting of Piazza Pasquinades by Achille Pinelli (1809-41.)

The visual delight and the bacchanal nature of the seasons and the stars is particularly endearing  in Pasquinades' observations of the night skies, comets and bacchanals of October.  He describes the autumn mist rising off the Tiber River and other visual delights.  Here's a memorable passage;

 "As the shadows lengthen, the light mellows and turns golden until the sky becomes Orvieto, a regional white wine stocked in all Roman restaurants.  By dusk the Eternal City is awash in Vin Santo, an amber-colored dessert wine best used for dunking almond Biscotti."

Truly a painterly sensibility that shows Pasquinade's color appreciation will appeal to the painter in us all.

 To celebrate the bacchanals of the harvest, we are introduced to a perfect Italian word, "scampagnata" a spirited country outing.  We think of the lovely painting by another Italian, the Renaissance Venetian, Giorgione.  His large canvas, now in the Louvre in Paris, titled "Fete Champetre" to which some attribute to his student Titian, is a glorious symphony of  these amber hues mentioned above.

There is a lot to enjoy here in Pasquinades' book.  Suffice it to say, it will outdo any contemporary account of historical travel guides of Rome. Our intrepid guide even outdoes Mark Twain for his frankness, wit and unvarnished truth.

Above- Keeler painting the famous Turtle Fountain in Rome- located not far from Pasquinades' neighborhood. Perhaps the figures in the stautes cavort and carouse with Pasquinades and delight together in the Roman night.

When  I return to Rome, I will now look for Pasquinades in that little square between Via Emanuelle II and Piazza Navona.  I have passed through here many times and stopped in the nearby Museum of the City of Rome on occasion too.

Pasquinades offers us plenty- I am reading it for the second time now. But the chapter on carciofi, or artichokes is especially endearing and brings in the culinary and long history of Jewry in Rome into focus. We have spent time dining and painting in the Jewish district. The bridge spanning the Tiber, called Ponte Fabricio is nearby- dating to 62 BC and still in use for pedestrians. It has captivated me as a source for painting and also for Corot in the 19th century. And carciofi are part of our history there in Rome. We discovered Carciofi Guiliani at a little restaruant on Via Ripetta near the Piazza del Popolo. Pasquinades talks instead about another way carciofi are prepared, called carciofi alla guida, or Jewish style artichokes. And again, a sculptor is recalled, as Benvunuto Cellini says that it was easier to smelt the bronze statue of Perseus than to cook carciofi alla guida.

The editor's note at the beginning of the book alerts readers to the fact that the statue in the photo on the cover is not that of Pasquinades, as he is armless and noseless.  Hence, a friendly statue, Scongiglio, a merman from Piazza Navona is modeling.  This conch-blowing fountain is one that I have painted on location with a friendly Zingara talking to me.  It is shown above.

Above- "Dawn on the Tiber". a 24" x 26 oil on linen by the author, painted plein air in Rome,

Note- Anthony Di Renzo will read from his book at the North Star Fine Art on the Commons in Ithaca, NY on Saturday, July 20th at 2 pm.

Please RSVP as seating is limited but free- or 607-323-7694.

And- copies of the book will be for sale at the gallery. The price is $20.00. All proceeds benefit the Tompkins County Public Library Foundation. Be sure to take one home with you as it is a win/win investment.

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