At funfairs and even outside supermarkets stand copies of the famous Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth); these modern made machines are designed for nothing more than a bit of fun. But can this be said for the original that is situated in Rome, on Piazza Bocca della Verità?
Located in the portico of one of Rome’s most beautiful medieval churches, Chiesa di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, built in the 8th century at the foot of the Aventine hills, a strange legend has grown up around this circular marble with its carved open-mouthed mask. Weighing 1300 kg and probably depicting the sea god Oceanus, historians are uncertain of why it was made; some think it was part of a fountain, but popular belief is that it was a drain cover. Some scholars believe that it was possibly removed from the Temple of Hercules Invictus, which had an oculus, a round open space in the middle of the roof, similar to that of the Pantheon.
But it is its notorious legend that attracts tourists who pay a donation of €0.50 to place their hand inside the mouth and take a chance on not losing it, as legend dictates that if you lie, you lose the hand.
Although unproven, the legend is said to originate from Roman times when a rich noble accused his wife of adultery. The wife vehemently denied the accusation so, to prove her lies, the husband ordered her to put her hand into the mouth and deny it again. The adulterous wife took a clever approach to the task in hand and, spotting her lover in the gathered crowd, she embraced him and, after kissing him, she denounced him publicly to be a madman. After she placed her hand inside the mouth, she proclaimed she had never shared a kiss with another man since her marriage, apart from the madman in the crowd she had just kissed. Seeing that her hand had not been bitten off, the husband accepted his wife’s denial and apologised.
A similar situation occurred when the mask was featured in the Hollywood film Roman Holiday, where Gregory Peck puts his hand inside the mouth in front of a terrified Audrey Hepburn.
Despite the legend, the mask still attracts hundreds of visitors willing to put their hand inside the mouth and for fun get away with telling a lie. But who knows, for the time being, maybe Oceanus is just biding his time.
During the summer la Bocca della Verità is open to the public from 9:30 am to 5:50 pm, and closing at 4:50 during the winter months.