The “Bocca della Verità” between cinema, history and reality

The “Bocca della Verità” (Mouth of Truth) is the name of a particularly famous and mysterious Roman monument, located in the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. While walking around this area its well worth stopping to find out if the story of the legend says is really true! According to tradition, in fact, by placing a hand in the mouth of this hieratic face carved in marble, if the person is lying, the hand will not be returned but kept by the mouth!

audrey hepburn - Bocca della verità (dal film: 'vacanze romane')

It is an out-and-out “truth test” that has exercised its charm even in the world of cinema. You are surely acquainted with the film Roman holiday, directed by William Wyler 1953, with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn playing the leading roles.

Well, one of the most important scenes of the film was shot near this somewhat alarming mouth of stone mouth. Here Gregory Peck tells Audrey that, according to tradition, if one was lying and slipped a hand into the mouth, the mouth would swallow it. Legend or not, it is not worth taking the risk of lying in front of this monument! It is also rumoured that during the shooting of the film, Ms Hepburn was the victim of a joke: Joe, that is the name of the male protagonist, pretends to get his hand stuck in the jaws of the monument. It seems that the beautiful actress got actually really scared, which helped make this scene particularly spontaneous and realistic.

But what is the Mouth of Truth really? It is a marble mask placed in the walls of the pronaus of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It represents a bearded face and can be otherwise attributed to being Jupiter Ammon or simply an oracle. It lies in its present location since the seventeenth century, while originally, in the classical period, it was a manhole cover. According to custom, at the time, manholes were decorated with the symbolic image of a river god or tied to the symbolism of water. During the eleventh century, the medieval mentality vested the Mouth of Truth with an oracular and magical nature.

Actually, it is some medieval sources that recount historical events of the past and include this monument in their stories. Julian the Apostate, who was considered to be a supporter of paganism, would allegedly have had experiences connected to the Mouth of Truth. Right here, the devil, disguised as Mercury, god of the pagan pantheon, hidden behind the mask, would have deceived the emperor by holding back his hand. But what was the emperor doing in the vicinity of the monument? Julian had been accused of swindling a woman and he had therefore to swear before this oracle on the goodness of his intentions. The devil took advantage of the situation and pretending to be Mercury, a god related to commerce, he promised Julian a good outcome if the emperor restored paganism.

bocca della verità

This is not the only medieval evidence of the fame of the Mouth of Truth. It seems that Virgilio Grammatico was the father of this simulacrum. We are in the sixth century now and Grammatico is one of the scholars of the time. An expert in magic, he would have built this stone Mouth only to test the good faith of those who submitted to this test. Wives and husbands who doubted the loyalty of their spouse would have thus had incontrovertible evidence of the good intentions of the partner.

Renaissance sources too, tellof this Mouth that raised the curiosity of European travellers of the time who visited the City, and many were the stories that flourished around this emblematic monument that still arouses, if not fear, certainly a great deal of curiosity! Raise, whoops, a hand, those who have never succumbed to the temptation of slipping one’s own palm inside the jaws of stone.

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