Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Pasquin and Marforio

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PASQUIN AND MARFORIO.


Pasquin and Marforio are probably not so old, by some hundreds of years, as Mr. Punch, who began life as a popular actor in very early Roman times, but their first literary efforts preceded his by nearly five centuries. They continue to exercise their moral and political censorship in Rome to this day; their names are as universally known as those of their illustrious brother of London; but whilst his works are in everybody’s hands, theirs have, for the most part, succumbed to the arts of suppression practised by the Papal government, and little of them has been left to the world except their fame. The author of the “Curiosities of Literature,” who has devoted two or three pages to their history, has quoted only seven of Pasquin’s epigrams, six of which are taken from a very rare work, published at Basle, so long ago as the year 1544, with this title—“Pasquillorum Tomi Duo.” No later collection having been attempted until the present year, great was the eagerness with which we sat down to devour M. Lafon’s book;[1] but that was quickly done, for the choicest part of M. Lafon’s book consists only of a score or two of epigrams, some of which we shall translate, with one or two pasquinades taken from other sources; after a few words of our own about their reputed authors.

Their history, after much sifting, has come at last to be substantially as follows:

There lived in Rome, in the fourteenth century, one Pasquin, a tailor, who had much custom and kept many journeymen. Both master and men allowed themselves great freedom of speech in censuring their superiors, of every degree, up to the cardinals and the pope himself. The disdain with which the members of the Papal court looked down on men of their condition secured to these railers an impunity of which persons of higher mark began, ere long, to take advantage. Whatever strokes of satire could not be avowed by the real authors, except at the cost of their lives, were fathered upon Pasquin and his saucy varlets, and, as common fame is never critical in such cases, the people gave their ready aid to a subterfuge which fell in with their humour. Hence it became an established custom to attribute to Maestro Pasquino all the wicked wit that was discharged anonymously upon the dignitaries of church and state.

After the tailor’s death his name and functions were imposed by popular acclaim on an ancient statue, which had been recently exhumed, and erected at the angle of the Orsini Palace, where it still remains. It is much mutilated, but is the ruin of a very fine work, and was greatly admired by Bernini. Count Maffei believed that it represents Ajax defending Menelaus. The statue of Marforio, in the courtyard of the Capitolian Museum, represents a recumbent river-god, and its name is a corruption of that of the place where it was found—Martis Forum. Marforio is the friend and confidant of Pasquin, and generally plays second fiddle to him in their joint performances, the one starting topics and the other despatching them; but occasionally these rôles are reversed. It was not through any sudden freak of the people that the heritage of the sharp-tongued tailor devolved on his marble representative. The thing came to pass in the most natural way in the world. The statue having been set up in one of the most frequented thoroughfares of Rome, the municipal authorities began to use its pedestal for posting up their notices and by-laws; the clergy and the court, following this example, placarded it with their banns, their bulls, and indulgences; and this suggested to the malcontents the idea of making it “a vehicle for the keenest satire in a land of the most uncontrolled despotism.” The intense bitterness of feeling which has rankled for five centuries in the hearts of the Romans may be measured not only by the virulence, but by the daring pertinacity with which they caused the stones of their city to cry out against their tyrants. There remained no hope of mercy for the man who was detected, by night, in the act of furtively affixing a paper to the marble, and yet the peril was incessantly braved. In the reign of the Borgias, a Venetian, who had translated a Greek epigram on the Pope and his son, was strangled, and every one who was suspected of a similar crime was thrown into the Tiber with a stone about his neck. Under Pius V., who was canonised, offenders of this kind were hanged, and their bodies were burned by the Inquisition. This was the fate, among others, of Aonius Palearius, the Latin poet, who indeed had added to his literary crimes the still deeper guilt of rejecting the cross, that is to say, the letter T, from his Christian name AnTonius.

In the pontificate of Sixtus V., who had begun life as a barefooted herdboy, Pasquin was seen wearing a dirty shirt, and the following dialogue took place between Marforio and him:

Marforio. “How slovenly you are grown, Pasquin; what a dirty shirt you have on! You are as black as a collier.”

Pasquin. “That is because my washerwoman has been made a duchess.”

The washerwoman was the Pope’s sister. Apropos of this pasquinade, Brantôme relates “an admirable action” of his Holiness. The Pope was so enraged that he issued a proclamation offering a reward of ten thousand crowns for the name of the man who had insulted himself and his sister, and promising, besides, that if the offender would reveal himself, his life should be spared, and the reward should be paid to him. The unfortunate wit fell into the trap, presented himself to Sixtus, and received the ten thousand crowns on the spot.

“I have made thee a promise,” said his Holiness, “and I will keep it; not for my life would I break faith with thee; but there is another thing I have not promised thee, and which I will yet fulfil—that is, that the hand which has written so ill shall be cut off, that thou mayest remember never again to write such scandalous words.”

“Many great personages,” observes Brantôme, “would not have so strictly kept their word in so scandalous and injurious a matter; and for that he did so, it behoves us to praise this great Pope.”

All other means of suppression having proved unavailing, Clement VIII. thought to silence the pasquinaders by destroying their mouth-piece, and Pasquin was condemned by a commission, composed of Cardinals, to be broken in pieces and thrown into the Tiber. Fortunately, however, before the sentence was executed, Clement’s nephews consulted Tasso, who dissuaded them from having recourse to so puerile an expedient. “If you throw Pasquin into the river,” said the poet, “he will turn all its mud into swarms of frogs that will never cease croaking night and day.”

The first epigram in M. Lafon’s collection is addressed to Paul II., and plays upon the double meaning of the word beatus—saintly—blest in a worldly sense.

Quum sit filia, Paule, sit tibi aurum
Quantum Pontifices habere raros
Vidit Roma prius, pater vocari
Sanctus non potes, ac potes beatus.

Thou hast a daughter, and golden store
Greater than Pontiff e’er had before.
Scarce art thou holy therefore; rather,
Paul, let us title thee blessed Father.”

Papal simony is branded in the persons of Alexander VI., Julius II. and many more:

Vendit Alexander claves, altaria, Christum;
Emerat ille prius, vendere jure potest.

Keys, altars, Christ are sold by Borgia; well,
What he has bought he has a right to sell.

Fraude capit totum mercator Julius orbem;
Vendit enim cœlos, non habet iste tamen.

World-cheating chapman Julius gets his price
For what he has no right to, Paradise.

Pasquin was a great writer of epitaphs; he never let a Pope be laid in his tomb without speaking out his mind about the departed. Whose fault was it that he had not a good word to bestow on any one of them? This is the tribute he pays to the memory of Clement VII.:—

Nutrix Roma fuit, genetrix Florentia: flevit
Nec tua te nutrix, nec tua te genetrix.
Mors tua lætitiam tulit omnibus, unica mœret
Quæ te regnavit principe, dira fames.

Florence, thy mother, Rome, thy nurse, have shed
No tear for thee. Clement, that thou art dead
Gives joy to all. One mourner hast thou solely—
Famine, the partner of thy reign unholy.

Dr. Curti, Clement’s physician, is extolled in an epigram for having physicked a bad pope to death, and cured the state. Again, among a long string of Scriptural texts applied more pointedly than reverently to sundry public characters, this one is allotted to Curti for having rid the earth of an incarnation of all wickedness, “Behold the lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world!” The epitaph on Clement VII. is mildness itself in comparison with that on Paul IV. (Carafa):—

Hic Carapha jacet superis invisus et imis:
Styx animam, tellus putre cadaver habet.
Invidit pacem terris, et vota precesque,
Impius et clerum perdidit et populum.
Hostibus infensis supplex, infidus amicis.
Scire cupis paucis cætera? Papa fuit.

Carafa’s soul, of God and man the foe,
Is with the damned; his carcase rots below.
Clergy and lay undone, could he have barred
Our secret prayers, his joy had been unmarred.
Judas and craven without heart or hope,
To sum all in one word, he was a Pope.

Paul IV. revived the dormant powers of the Inquisition, and made it so violent that when he died in 1599, the people broke into the prisons of the Holy Office, and rescued four hundred victims, sacked the palace of the inquisitors, burned their books and papers, pulled down the statue of the deceased Pope, and dragged the head about the streets. It was with the greatest difficulty that the corpse itself was saved from their fury. Such was the execration in which Carafa’s memory was held amongst them, that for a long time they would not suffer the street hawkers to cry bicchieri e caraffe (glasses and carafes).

The three following epigrams are addressed to Paul III. (Farnese).

Nescio si verum est jam te faciente per urbem
Quod sal vendatur carius omnis ait.
O bene consultum, nil hoc perfectius uno:
Jam fœtes, æquum est sit tibi cura salis.

All curse the grievous price of salt,
And murmur, Paul, it is thy fault.
I blame thee not of salt for thinking,
All rotten as thou art and stinking.

Ut canerent data multa olim sunt vatibus æra:
Ut taceam quantum tu mihi, Paule, dabis?

Poets, ’tis known, in days of old,
To make them sing, were given gold;
But how much will you give me, Paul,
To stop my singing once for all?

Pasquin would accept a cardinal’s hat as the price of his silence—

Tandem, maxime Pontifex, galerum
Pasquillo tribuas tuo roganti.
Si sensu sine sum, rude atque marmor,
Complures quoque episcopos videmus
Ipso me mage saxeos creari.

Grant, Holy Father, to thy Pasquin,
The hat for which he has long been asking.
I’m but a block of stone; what matter!
Twill make no difference to the hatter.
Far duller blocks, all must acknowledge,
Are plenteous in the Sacred College.

The argument with which Pasquin supports his pretensions on this occasion appears to have had its grain of truth. Cornelio Masso, a cordelier, went to the court of Paul III. to solicit the cardinal’s hat. The Pope told him one day he had been given to understand that he, Masso, was a bastard. The latter, nothing daunted, replied, “Your Holiness has made cardinals of so many asses that you may well make one mule a cardinal.”

The following pasquinade appeared during the occupation of Rome by the French in 1810:—

Marforio.—Is it true, Pasquin, that all the French are robbers?

Pasquin.—Not all of them, but a good part—(Buona parte).

Early in the present pontificate, when the Pope returned to Rome after an excursion to Bologna and Loretto, Pasquin’s statue displayed these three lines:—

Pio nono
Justo e buono
Mastaï.

Mastaï was the Pope’s name before his election. He was Count Cardinal Mastaï-Feretti. Hence the pun which gave point to the inscription, its sense being—“Pius IX., you are just and good, but you halt on the way (ma stai).”

On a subsequent occasion of the same kind Pasquin exhibited a placard containing only these three figures: 610. Six hundred and ten, or in Italian, sei cento dieci, what could that mean? Everybody hastened to Marforio for the solution of the enigma, and found it in the words Sei un zero, “Thou art a cypher.” Name the figures separately and you have 6=sei, 1=un, 0=zero. Now sei is a word of double meaning; it may stand either for “six” or “thou art,” and thus 610 may signify “Thou art a cypher.” How superior after all, to the sly hits of Transalpine jokers, are the witticisms which move us in these northern latitudes!

Walter K. Kelly.


  1. Pasquin et Marforio, Histoire Satirique des Papes, traduite et publiée pour la première fois par Mary Lafon. Paris, Dentu, 1861.