La Bocca della Verità, known in English as the Mouth of Truth, is one of the most interesting sculptures in Rome. It is a huge Pavonazzo marble image that weighs more than 2800 pounds. It’s pretty much a disc carved with a face of a man with its mouth, nostrils and eyes wide open.
You can find the Mouth of Truth at the ancient cattle market in Piazza della Bocca della Verità, specifically at the left side wall of Santa Maria in Cosmedin church’s portico.
During ancient times, the marble disc was used as a great way of finding whether a person is telling the truth or not. It was more like a lie detector of the modern days. People who had committed or were accused of committing iniquitous acts such as adultery and perjury were being brought in front of the mammoth disc. They would be asked to take oath and have to place their hand inside the open mouth while they answer the questions of the executioner. It was believed that if a person is telling the truth, the disc would never move a muscle. However, if the person was telling a lie, the mouth would close and then cut off the hand of that person.
There was also an account stating that the marble disc was used for trial by ordeal. The person on trial will also have to place his hand inside the mouth. An executioner hid behind the massive structure with his sharp sword ready to strike and cut the hand or fingers of the defendant secretly.
This medieval myth became a well-known part of the Roman culture and is popular even at the present times. Many parents encourages their kids not to tell a lie and threaten them that if they lie they will be brought to the huge disc.
Even today, historians are still not certain about the origin of the disc nor about the original purpose. Some say that the face of the disc was that of Oceanus, the pagan god of the sea. Some say that the disc was actually a drain cover or manhole cover used in the Temple of Hercules Invictus, which is located just nearby the area where the huge disc is situated.
Another account regarding the disc’s origin states that it was used by cattle merchants as a drainpipe in draining the blood of the cattle slaughtered as a sacrifice to the Roman god Hercules. It was also thought to be part of an ancient fountain in the 1st century. Some believe that it was created to represent the god of Tiber River. There was, however, no evidence that showed any of these claims was actually factual.
The marble image was taken out from the temple and was transferred to the wall of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the 13th century. It was then moved back to its original place in the 17th century.
The legend about the Mouth of Truth became famous to English-speaking culture when it was featured in the 1953 film entitled “Roman Holiday”. The sculpture was used as a storytelling device in the movie. Through this movie, the truth about the myth was exposed. The character named Joe placed his hand inside the mouth of the sculpture. He was not telling the truth then but the mouth didn’t closed, a complete opposition to the believed myth.
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