Muri Puliti, Popoli Muti: Walls, Graffiti & Roman Tradition


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Muri puliti, popoli muti (“clean walls, dumb people”) is a famous saying that has accompanied Rome’s long social and political history, extending beyond the walls of the beautiful capital to encapsulate a trend common to the entire Italian peninsula: graffiti.

The history of graffiti, or generally-speaking writing on walls, is not rooted in modern times.  Furthermore, the spontaneous practice of wall graffiti provides clear evidence of a population’s need to make openly make social commentary and explain concepts.  Italians call it scrittura di strada e di piazza (“street and piazza writing”), a means of communication, engaged in by various members of society from different social strata, that is equivalent and parallel to official and institutional forms.

Graffiti came to be seen as directly expressing popular thought, and covered a wide range of topics, many of which were incised into the walls of ancient Rome.  The curious passerby was treated to numerous graffiti that represented men, women, political caricatures, blatant erotic scenes infused with ritual and religion.

Image from Wikipedia: Sack of Rome of 1527 by Johannes Lingelbach 17th century

Today, Rome still has many examples of ancient graffiti.   They can be found in many of the most popular year-round tourist destinations, such as the Baths of Caracalla and the Vatican.  One of the most famous graffiti does not belong to ancient Rome, but to May 6 1527, which would come to be known as the Sack of Rome.  Rome, being the heart of the Papal States, was governed by Pope Clement VII, who bore witness to the invasion and plundering of Rome by 34,000 mutinous troops under the command of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.

The morning of the invasion, the Landsknecht army forcibly entered the Palace Armellini through the window of a cellar, and then made their way to the Palazzo della Rovere and then onward to St. Peter’s, where the Pope was praying and being guarded by 189 Swiss Guards, who defended his escape through the Castel Sant’Angelo.   After that, the Landsknecht army crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo and invaded the rest of the city.

Image by artist Rebecca DiMattia:

There were many acts of vandalism on that ominous day in Roman history, from historic relics, such as the Veil of Veronica, to structures, such as one of the Vatican Museum’s Raphael Rooms, the Room of Signatures, where the famous fresco Disputation over the most  Holy Sacrament can be seen.  It is also at the bottom of this masterpiece that the invaders carved the word “Luther” (still visible today, under direct light), a tribute to Martin Luther, an enemy of the Roman Church of the early 1500s.

Rome’s ancient history can be seen as the symbolic crossroads of “human experiences.”  From political satire to provocative thoughts on freedom, the graffiti of the thousand or more walls of Rome, and around Italy, speak of a culture that has been handed down generation after generation, and from city to city.  Some may even say, from wall to wall.


So, do not be surprised if you find graffiti during your next passeggiata through the many alleyways of the Eternal City.  Be they words of love or protest, Rome’s graffiti offers you tributes of bygone and modern times, of voices that still echo in the market of Campo de’ Fiori, out of the many windows of the charming Piazza Navona, and along the stairs of the Spanish Steps.


Original Article by Samir Hassan

(Translated & Edited by Diedré Blake)

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The MindtheGuideTeam 

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