“Bocca della Verità” – Just a Marble Mask or Rome’s Ancient Lie Detector?

by Piya Sengupta8 months ago
Picture “Bocca della Verità” – Just a Marble Mask or Rome’s Ancient Lie Detector?

Against the wall of an ordinary, run-down church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, there is a cryptic relic – a weathered marble visage with an open mouth, famously known as the “Bocca della Verità,” or “Mouth of Truth.” It gazes upon visitors with hollow eye sockets and a gaping maw, silently judging thousands of tourists every year who try to validate their own selves or others by placing their hands inside its mouth hole. According to a legend, this marble face punishes lies and dishonesty by biting off the fingers of the guilty. The mask has supposedly been this ritual for more than five centuries.

What lies at the heart of this captivating tale? The legend of the Bocca della Verità is enthralling and stands on equal footing with the rich history of Rome.

Whose face do we see in the Bocca della Verità?

The purpose and identity of the stern, bearded- marble face is still open to question. This 1,300 kg (2,866 lbs.) archaic, round, pagan sculpture is rich in legend but shrouded in mystery. There are many theories, but no one knows for certain whose face we see in the “Mouth of Truth.” This fascinating sculpture is around 20 cm (eight inches) thick and 175 cm (69 inches) in diameter. Historically, no one knows for sure the purpose it served when it was built.

Does the ‘Bocca Della Verità’ Really Bite Off Your Hand if You Lie?
Bocca Della Verità. Image credit: Javier de la Rosa/Flickr
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The engraving prominently features two hollow eyes, two nostrils, and a gaping mouth. There seems to be a resemblance to horns or crab-like claws on the marble head. According to most scholars, the face resembles the Sea God, Oceanus, who also had pincer horns like crabs.  Some scholars also believe that the face might also belong to Triton, the god of Tiber, or, more popularly, Faun, the pagan god of the forest.

The origin of the Bocca della Verità.

The Mouth of Truth
The Mouth of Truth. Image Credit: Gonzalo Malpartida/Flickr.com

The scholars believe that the origin of the iconic Bocca della Verità is rather modest. It may be a bit anti-climactic, given the legend it grew to be. Some theories also suggest that it may have been a well-covering or a part of a fountain in ancient Rome. Speculated to have been created around the first century CE, the shape, condition, and holes of the Bocca della Verità emphasize the theory that it may have originally been a drain cover in the nearby Temple of Hercules Victor. The roof of the temple had a round open space, like that of the Pantheon in Rome. If it was indeed a drain covering, it might have been to drain out the water from the temple when it rained or to drain out the blood of the cattle sacrificed at the temple by the cattle merchants.

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Some historians speculate that it was perhaps a drain cover for the Cloaca Maxima, which is a still-existent, massive sewer built in ancient Rome that flows into the river Tiber. With that theory, it would be appropriate that the face belongs to God Oceanus, the sea god, to watch over the gushing water through the city drain into the river.

What is the legend of the Bocca della Verità?

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No one knows the origin of the Bocca della Verità for sure. Even which pagan god it resembles is up for debate. But the theory that unifies all scholars is the survival of the fable surrounding the marble face. The urban legend warns that if you put your hand inside the mouth and lie, you risk losing your hand or limbs.

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This may have started in the Middle Ages when Rome was full of tribunals, executions, and witch trials! The accused or the suspected on trial, if found guilty, would have their hands chopped off as punishment.

The first reference to Bocca della Verità as a lie detector is believed to be found in a document from around the 1450s, and it started gaining popularity since then. A famous legend dating back to the 15th century revolves around a nobleman who suspected his wife of infidelity and brought her to trial in front of the “Mouth of Truth.” The woman, who indeed was unfaithful, devised a cunning plan to escape the judgment of the mouth. Her lover, dressed as a madman, suddenly came and embraced her when she put her hand inside the mouth. Therefore, the truth she said was that no one except for her husband and the madman had ever touched her. This technically proved to be the crafty truth, but the truth, nonetheless. She escaped from her ill fate, her husband satisfied with her innocence.

A reference to the legend is also seen in a famous painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder,  a Renaissance German painter. The painting was done between the years 1525 and 1530, according to Richard Carlton Jones, head of scholarship, research, and cataloging. As most good stories do, the legend stuck through the ages, though the truth of it is still up for question!

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Is the legend of the Bocca della Verità true?

A tourist trying to test the Mouth of Truth.
A tourist trying to test the Mouth of Truth. Image Credit: Bgabel/Wikimedia.org

The legend of the mask as an arbitrator of truth has been alive for more than 500 years. But is it just an urban legend? The mysteriousness of the magnanimous marble face with hollow eyes, a nose, and a gaping mouth played a part in popularising the story in a culture obsessed with pagan gods, superstitions, and dark plots.

But there may be some truth to it, just not the whole truth. Throughout centuries, manuscripts and references suggest that the story might be this: If authorities already deemed the person on trial guilty, officers would conceal themselves behind the mask, armed with knives, axes, or hot brands, ready to administer justice to the accused. The gaping crowd would stare in horror at the predicament of the deceivers and eventually help in spreading the legend. The story stuck, and the marble face slowly became famous and had an extremely important role to play in Rome.

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The purpose of this massive marble and its original location remains uncertain. But around the 13th century, it was relocated to the medieval church of Santa Maria. Later, in the 17th century, after some restoration work in the church, it was moved to its current position against the church wall.

Therefore, the mask was placed where it is today, not before the 1450s. Before that, it had already lain in a place of relatively less importance for centuries, in a much less glorified role compared to being an authority on justice. But the truth is, no one has ever lost their hands or limbs as a part of divine justice carried out by the mask itself.

The popularity of the Bocca della Verità continues to grow.

La Bocca della Verità, Paris
La Bocca della Verità, statue by Jules Blanchard, in the Luxembourg Garden, Paris. Image Credit: Marc Baronnet/Wikimedia.org

The Bocca della Verità began to rise in fame as it became associated with revealing deception and untruthfulness. Any thrilling tale, particularly one tinged with violence, has consistently proven to be a timeless formula for success. Consequently, this narrative endured and progressively expanded, leaving its mark in literature, art, and engravings and persisting through contemporary forms such as movies. Nearly everyone recalls the iconic moment from the Hollywood classic Roman Holiday, in which the dashing Gregory Peck pulled a prank on Audrey Hepburn in front of the Bocca della Verità. He slyly slipped his hand into the mouth, feigning its disappearance by concealing it within his sleeves.

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Over time, references and adaptations multiplied. Presently, a life-sized replica of the marble statue resides at Alta Vista Gardens in California. Additionally, there’s a sculpture in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris featuring a woman with her hand inside the “Mouth of Truth.” Cruder reproductions and fortune-telling machines have also cropped up in museums, like the one at Musée Mécanique in San Francisco.

In this era of rampant commercialization and incessant selfies, the allure and enigma of the Bocca della Verità have faded. Now, the church that owns it charges tourists for the privilege of accessing this marble visage and taking a photograph with it. The authority and reverence it once commanded have, perhaps, waned. Instead, it now gazes sombrely at the countless tourists, perhaps letting out a big sigh through its open mouth as it poses for yet another selfie with yet another skeptic of today’s world.

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Picture “Bocca della Verità” – Just a Marble Mask or Rome’s Ancient Lie Detector?
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