Long before the modern lie detectors were invented, the superstitious and untruthful faced a much more cruel fate between the jaws of the Bocca della Verità, italian for “Mouth of Truth”, an ancient carving with an unshakeable fame due a rather macabre legend associated with it since ancient times.
In short, If a liar puts his hand inside its mouth, he will lose it.
It now rests in the portico of the Paleochristian church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, at the foot of the Aventine hills, Rome, and it has attracted the attention and curiosity of tourists from all over the world.
This church was founded in the 6th century on the ruins of the statio annonae, the food-distribution center of classical Rome.
Enlarged by Pope Hadrian I in the 8th century, it was given to the Greek community who lived near the Tiber, in a district called the Ripa Grecae. From that time the church was known as Santa Maria in Cosmedin, after the name of a quarter in Constantinople.
No one is exactly sure when or why the Mouth of Truth was created, and there are a variety of theories and stories about it.
Dating back to around the 1st century CE, the Mouth of Truth is a tall stone disc carved into a humanoid face with hollow holes for eyes and gaping mouth.
The original purpose of the large medallion has been theorized as everything, from a ceremonial well cover, to a piece of fountain decoration, to even a manhole cover.
The face itself has been said to represent a pagan god although exactly which one is up for debate with scholars guessing at everyone from forest god Faunus, to sea god Oceanus, to a local river god.
Actually, it seems that its fascinating history takes place in the ancient Roman Empire, as it was just a sewer cover. During the Imperial age, in fact, the sewer covers used to be decorated by the face of a divinity drinking the rain.
Lately in the Middle Ages, legends and stories about the magical powers of the Bocca della Verità started to be told.
Several legends tell about its build. One of the most famous tells us about Virgil the Grammarian, a prominent scholar of the 6th century. It is said this man knew the dark magic, and he was able to make wonderful works. As story goes, Virgil was betrayed by his wife while he was out of town, but when he asked her for explanations about it, she just denied everything. It is said the magician decided to make the Bocca della Verità to create an instrument able to discover unfaithful husbands and wives.
The first woman who tried the effect of the mouth was Virgil’s wife. The legend tells she couldn’t believe in what she was seeing, while the mouth was cutting her arm, so she admitted to have cheated on her husband.
Despite its origin is still up for debate, the unifying legend surrounding the stone carving is that if one were to stick their hand inside the disc’s mouth and tell a lie, the rocky maw would bite the offending hand off.
This belief seems to have originated during the Middle Ages when the disc was supposedly used during trials having the accused put their hand in the slot and if found to be untruthful a hidden axeman would lop off the appendage.
According to another legend It seems that, in Roman times, the rich wife of a Roman noble was accused of adultery. The woman denied the accusations, but her husband wanted to put her to the test by making her hand inside the stone mouth.
Knowing perfectly well that she was lying, the woman used a very clever strategy: in front of a group of curious bystanders who had gathered around the Mouth of Truth, the man who was actually her lover embraced her and kissed her.
She pretended that she didn’t know him and accused him of being a madman and the crowd chased him away.
When she put her hand into the mouth, the woman declared that she had never kissed any other man apart from her husband and the poor madman who had just kissed her. In this way she was certain that she hadn’t lied and her hand was saved. The betrayed husband saved her honour, but the Mouth of Truth lost its credibility and it is said that since that day it no longer carried out its function as a right and unappeasable judge.
Even if the legend of the unfaithful woman is one of the most fascinating ones, it is not the only existing one.
A 12th-century German book tells about a meeting between Giuliano and the devil. Giuliano had cheated a woman a few minutes before putting the hand into the mouth, so he had to demonstrate his innocence.
A moment before he put the hand into the mouth, he heard a voice coming from it, the voice of the devil, pretending to be Mercury, and promising him to make him reach if he would have sworn to reestablish Paganism.
Giuliano swore to do it, so as required by the voice of Mercury, and the mouth saved his hand.
According to the legend, from that day on, Giuliano’s life changed forever. He immediately started to work, and a few years later he was officially recognized as the emperor responsible of the restoration of Paganism in the empire. The treasures the voice promised him arrived during the following years, while Giuliano went on developing his project in a very committed way.
Either way, the Mouth of Truth has been featured as a theme in historical European art.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, a German painter during the Renaissance period, created two paintings depicting a woman placing her hand in the mouth of a statue of a lion while onlookers watched, a subject which was drawn by Albrecht Altdorfer and made into a woodcut by the Dutch printmaker Lucas van Leyden.
But the Mouth of Truth is now known mostly from its appearance in the 1953 film “Roman Holiday”, who uses it as a storytelling device since both Hepburn’s and Peck’s characters are not initially truthful with each other.
In Het geheim van de afgebeten vingers by Dutch writer Rindert Kromhout, the fingers of lying children are cut off by a skeleton with a scythe who lives in the Capuchin Crypt in the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.
And, moreover, there are a number of Bocca della Verità replicas and derivative works around the world, including a full-size reproduction in the Alta Vista Gardens in California, while one of Jules Blanchard’s sculptures in the Luxembourg Garden in Paris depicts a woman with her hand in the sculpture’s mouth. Coin-operated fortune teller machines have been developed and installed in different parts of the world, including one on display in the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco.
Despite its use seems to be apocryphal, superstitions and legends persist to this day.
Still today, this ancient mask is the cause of queues of tourists who line up outside the beautiful Paleochristian church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
The thrill of the risk is too strong and people can’t resist putting your hand inside this harmless, but unsettling stone face hoping for the best!
Images from web – Google Research