He looks harmless enough, old Pasquino, his battered bust sitting unassumingly in the corner of a small square behind Piazza Navona. But this is the statue that used to strike terror into the hearts of the Farneses and the Barberinis, the great Renaissance families that controlled the papacy and the city but could do little to control the insubordinate wit of the populace.
Pasquino has been around since antiquity but has tended to come into his own in periods when free speech is compromised or threatened. He invented the anonymous political barb, still known as a pasquinade, and convinced more than one pope that he and other "talking" statues possessed magical powers that were best not interfered with.
So it was peculiarly thrilling to see a new message appearing on the pedestal upholding Pasquino's bust the other night. The object of its scorn was Cesare Previti, a much-loathed right-wing deputy now under investigation for bribing judges on behalf of his mentor, the media tycoon turned politician, Silvio Berlusconi.
"Ah Ce'... Facce sape'," the message reads in broad Roman dialect. "Te so' costati piu dieci alti magistrati, o come pensa er popolo trecento e passa deputati?" Or, to put it more intelligibly: Cesare, tell us how many more judges you bribed to stop parliament from lifting your immunity.
This might not have been up to the standard of the most withering pasquinades of the past, but it was a suitably cynical sort of pronouncement for the statue to emit after years of silence. And the scandal in question has a wider resonance than at first meets the eye. Mr Previti is not only accused of corruption and obstruction of justice, but his indiscretions are alleged to stretch to ambiguous relations with a pair of glamorous society sisters in Milan who in turn have been a bit loose with their pillow talk. Washington is not the only world capital where sex, politics and the law are converging in strange ways.
Actually, Pasquino wouldn't be too shocked by the Fornigate scandal, not after the carryings-on of cardinals and popes down the ages. In the past, the statue has famously protested at the way Rome's ruling families shamelessly quarried the city's ancient monuments to build their palaces and, in the Fascist period, made jokes about the ever deteriorating quality of bread provided by state bakeries.
One medieval pope wanted to chuck the statue into the Tiber but was warned that it might "infect the very frogs, who would croak pasquinades day and night". With any other outspoken adversary, Mr Previti might choose to resort to the libel courts. With Pasquino, though, he had better watch his step.Reuse content