Paterno and His Roman Counterpart, Pasquino
It’s been interesting to see what’s happened to the site outside Beaver Stadium where Joe Paterno’s statue once stood. It’s just a grassy hillside now, but some people are treating the spot almost as if the statue is still there: They leave little mementos in the grass, especially on home football weekends.
The weekend of the Ohio game, someone put a tiny Bobblehead Joe in the grass. I think someone stuck a miniature cardboard Stand-Up Joe there at one point. And this past weekend there suddenly were flowers with notes, a ballcap, game tickets, and other items—along with a sign that said “KARMA HAS NO DEADLINE.” (See photo, below.)
Penn State art historian Brian Curran wouldn’t be surprised to see that, I don’t think. I interviewed Curran at the end of July, nine days after the statue came down, for a piece in our Sept-Oct issue. We ran it as a short Q&A in the magazine, and posted a longer version of it here on the blog. I sought him out for some academic, historical perspective on statues of heroes—from ancient Egypt, to ancient Rome, through the Renaissance and on up to present times.
I was especially interested in how various societies have dealt with statues of heroes who fall out of favor: In ancient Egypt, for example, Thutmose III erased the memory of Queen Hatshepsut when she died. “Scores of colossal statues [of Hatshepsut] were dumped into a great pit, just destroyed,” Curran told me. “They could easily have re-carved them into the likeness of Thutmose III, but they didn’t. They threw them all in. They shattered not just limestone statues, but granite statues, into bits”—not an easy feat with the equipment available at the time. The ancient Romans, by contrast, were more practical, Curran said: They “wouldn’t just topple a statue—they would re-carve the face, or replace the head with a new one.”
One part of the interview that I wasn’t able to include in the magazine or online version (it was just a little too unwieldy to edit) was a discussion about “talking statues”—a concept that I’d never heard of before, but one that’s very relevant to the Paterno statue.
If you’ve ever been to Rome, you may have seen a broken-down, ancient statue of a guy named Pasquino. It’s called a “talking statue” because, for centuries, people have been leaving poems and notes on or near it, offering commentary about current events, criticisms of church leadership, and so on. It’s as though Pasquino is serving as the mouthpiece for the people.
Pasquino has been “talking” all throughout history, Curran says: “When Napoleon occupied, he took on Napoleon. When Mussolini was in, he was insulting Mussolini. When Berlusconi was in, he was insulting Berlusconi. When the Iraq war started, he was insulting Bush.
“He was never too hard on John Paul II,” Curran adds. “He’s very hard on Pope Benedict.”
This phenomenon of a statue becoming vox populi—the voice of the people—is part of what Curran calls “the social life of statues,” and he’s writing a book about the subject. No doubt his book will include the Paterno statue, as people have been leaving notes at the statue—and, now, at the site where the statue used to be—ever since Paterno’s firing last November.
Below is the latest example of the Paterno statue “talking”: the items left over from this past football weekend.
To the university’s credit, they generally don’t seem to rush to make that stuff disappear. Someone has apparently told the folks in Physical Plant to just let it be. I saw the items above, for example, on Sunday, and when I came back to take the photo on Monday morning, they were still there.
Brian Curran might say that the statue, even though it’s no longer there, is still speaking.
Tina Hay, editor