Rome: ghost of madcap street performer brings colour to his old piazza

Rome to remember Remigio with a plaque in Piazza Barberini.

Rome’s central Piazza Barberini this weekend saw the “return” of Remigio Leonardis, the eccentric street performer who entertained people with his crazy antics in the square for around 30 years.

Actor Claudio Germanò brought to life the madcap character for several minutes on 17 October, the 10th anniversary of Remigio’s death.

Armed with a handful of flowers and radios attached to both ears, Germanò channelled the spirit of Remigio, dancing around the piazza and inviting people to never forget love, poetry, theatre, art, beauty and freedom.

“It’s my piazza, it’s my old fountain,” exclaimed a jubilant Germanò/Remigio, before bemoaning the “sadness” of the square now, empty and still, “all changed” from the decades when he treated it as his personal stage.

Each day Remigio provided lively performances, conducting imaginary orchestras, waving balloons and dancing, blowing raspberries at motorcyclists, shouting greetings to tourists in open-top buses, screaming abuse at passing politicians’ cars.

Sometimes he would chase Romans to spit out water he drank from Bernini’s fountain, other times to hand them flowers. It all depended on his mood.

His was a colourful world of jokes and insults, theatrical protests and crazy fun. Tourist guides pointed him out as the “dancing monument.”

But who exactly was Remigio Leonardis? There are multiple modern-day Roman legends surrounding his background, which was always shrouded in mystery. He was born into a wealthy family, so they say, on 31 October 1943, according to his obituary in Rome daily newspaper Il Messaggero.

Cultured and eccentric, he studied as a lawyer. Maybe. Others say he was a former bank manager who freaked out after a robbery; other people say he was a former engineer who went a bit nuts.

Entertaining was Remigio’s job, his mission in life, taking two buses each day from his home – an attic full of radios in the Ostiense district – where he would return for lunch each day before heading back to Piazza Barberini again.

Remigio fascinated even the celebrated Roman actor Alberto Sordi who spoke with Rome’s then mayor Francesco Rutelli about his desire to make a film inspired by the street performer. “Why don’t you take him home instead?” – the mayor allegedly said – “Do you know how many accidents happen because of him? People are distracted by watching him dance, leaving us with dozens of rear-end collisions.”

Remigio went “missing” from the piazza several times before his death, leading one journalist at Il Messaggero to suggest that he might have died. The next day Remigio entered the Messaggero headquarters, just down the street from Piazza Barberini, brandishing the newspaper article in his hands and shouting “I’m alive!”

When he died, for real, he was recalled as “Rome’s last Pasquino.” Ten years on, there are now plans to remember Remigio with a plaque in the pavement of the piazza whose passersby he terrorised and thrilled for 30 years.