The Roman trickery of Bocca della Verità

When in Rome (with children) do as the Romans do: when a Roman mother suspects that her child is not (entirely) telling the truth she threatens to take the child to the Bocca della Verità or mouth of truth at the church of Saint Mary in Cosmedin. According to the old Roman legend the Romans had a code of conduct obliging the one who takes an oath to put his hand in the Bocca della Verità. If they were not telling the truth the hand could not withdraw and was removed with a violent bite of the mouth.

The Bocca della Verità is an at least 2200 years old and 1200 kilo heavy round Pavonazzetto marble disk in the shape of a head, where the eyes, nostrils and mouth are carved all the way through the 19 cm thick stone. It probably represents the god Océanus , from him whom all rivers are and the entire sea and all springs and all deep wells have their waters according to Homer (Iliad 21. 194 ff). This is why most scholars presume it to be the original drain cover of the ancient temple of Jupiter Jurarius or the temple of Hercules Invictus. The temple was built using a similar circular domed rotunda or vault roof construction as the Pantheon with an oculus, round open space, in the middle. That would also explain the 2 holes on the side of the stone, which could have been used for the horizontal fixing on a vaulted roof.

After the demolition of the temple the Bocca della Verità was placed in the narthex or portico of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church around 1650 where it stayed ever since and became known as a place to take the test of truth.

Times did not change much, because this cracked marble disk still attracts crowds of curious tourists looking for amusement, or perhaps even jealous or suspicious people who want the Bocca della Verità to test their partner’s fidelity. But does it still work?

I have to disappoint you. According to another legend the mouth of truth lost its credibility, when an adulterous Roman noble man’s wife was put to the test by her husband. The woman was forced to put her hand in the mouth, when all of a sudden a man came forward and kissed her. He was actually her lover, although she pretended not to know him and accused him of being a madman and the crowd chased him away. When she put her hand into the mouth of truth, the woman declared that she had never kissed any other man apart from her husband and the crazy man who had just kissed her. Her honor and that of her husband were saved, but from that moment on no more hands were bitten off. The Bocca della Verità apparently did not like the trickery and stopped working.

The mouth of truth was also the location for the for 1953’s film Roman Holiday. American newspaperman Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) teases the Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) by pulling out his, seemingly, handless arm from the carved stone face. Go and see Roman Holiday before travelling to Rome and you will recognize at least some of the film’s locations while on tour in this ancient city. Just to get you started, Gregory Peck’s character lived at Via Margutta 51.

Bocca della Verità (mouth of truth)
Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin
Piazza Bocca della Verita
Rome 00186