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A Nude Who Inspired Modesty

‘Adam Abu-Diyab is breathing hard through his mouth as he wheels his adult-size tricycle up Me’ah She’arim’s main drag,” writes correspondent Mitchell Ginsburg in the July 14 Jerusalem Report. “His bike is ancient and his trailer is weighted with the tools of his trade. There’s a broom, a roller, a bucket of glue and a few hundred sheets of multi-colored paper…. He is the pashkeval guy, the one who posts the huge bills that keep the ultra-Orthodox residents of [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Me’ah She’arim up to date on the latest, frequent venomous, news, views, and gossip.”

Pashkevals or pashkvils, as public notices and broadsides are known in Yiddish, are indeed plastered all over the walls of Me’ah She’arim, attacking heretics, announcing demonstrations against Sabbath violators, proclaiming this or that rabbinic decision, urging women to dress modestly and men to be Torah-true. Yet I doubt whether any of the Jews who pens or reads them knows that the word for them derives — horrors! — from a nude statue in a Roman plaza.

Not directly, thank goodness. The Yiddish word pashkvil was borrowed from the Polish paszkwil, which comes from the French pasquil or pasquille, which goes back to the French pasquin, which derives from the Italian pasquinata (whence English “pasquinade,” a satire or lampoon), which has its source in…. but let’s slow down and start from the beginning.

In the year 1501, at the height of the Italian Renaissance, an ancient marble statue was discovered in the course of excavations in Rome’s Orsini Palace. As it was not in the best of conditions, it was difficult to determine its precise subject, the most widely accepted view — first broached by Michelangelo — being that it represented a scene from Homer’s “Iliad,” in which the Greek warrior Menelaus drags off the dying body of his comrade Patroclus. Yet once it was erected on a pedestal in the Via del Paione, today the Via del Governo Vecchio, this statue came to be known by Romans as “Pasquino.” One theory has it that a Signore Pasquino was the keeper of a nearby tavern; another that he was a neighborhood tailor or barber; yet another that he was a high-school teacher whose students made fun of him.

What is not in dispute is that, since the Via del Paione was a much-used route for papal parades from the Vatican to the center of Rome, Pasquino soon became a kind of anti-papal bulletin board, on whose neck barbs and jokes were hung by a populace that resented the rapacity and ostentation of the Borgia popes who ruled the city. The year the statue was erected, contemporary chroniclers tells us, Pope Alexander VI, whose coat-of-arms had a bull on it, passed by to find Pasquino bearing a Latin placard that said, “Preedixi tibi papa bos quod esses” — freely translatable as, “I always knew, you big ox, that they’d make a pope of you.” And when Alexander died two years later, in 1503, and the Via del Paione was on the route of his funeral procession, Pasquino wore a sign around his neck that proclaimed, “Qui giace Allesandro sesto,/ É sepolto con lui quanto veneró:/ Il lusso, la discordia, l’inganno, la violenza, il delitto” — “Here lies Alexander the sixth,/ And buried with him, all that he loved:/ Luxury, discord, mendacity, violence, and crime.”

By the end of the 16th century, the word pasquinata was being used to describe such public lampoons, which were being placed on other statues in Rome, too. Yet Pasquino remained the main venue for them, as well as the one most used for attacking popes, such as when, during the reign of Pius V (1566-72), whose Inquisition burned accused heretics at the stake, this terza rima stanza modeled on Dante’s “Inferno” was posted:

Quasi che fosse inverno,Brucia Cristiani Pio siccome legnaPer avvezzarsi al fuoco dell’inferno.As if it were winter,Pius burns Christians like woodTo get them used to Hell’s fires.

Pasquino continued to have pasquinades displayed on him in the centuries that followed, engendering some legendary jokes and puns. For example, when Pope Urban VIII Barberini, known as “Papa Gabella,” or “Pope Taxes,” because of his penchant for imposing them, wished to strip the bronze tiles off the roof of the Pantheon to finance his high living, a Latin notice went up: “Quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini,” “What the Barbarians failed to do, the Barberinis have done.” And when, at the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, a Roman hung a sign asking, “Is it true that all Frenchmen are bandits?” Pasquino soon sported the answer: “Tutti, no, ma BonaParte!” — “Not all, but the better part!”

The pashkvils of Me’ah She’arim are rarely as witty. Usually they say things like, “Jews, Do Not Watch The Lewdness of Television!” or “Daughters of Zion, Cover Your Arms and Your Heads!” Nude Pasquino must find it amusing that such appeals are named for him.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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