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Rome’s Bocca della Verità. A legendary attraction

By Saturday, 29 October 2022 10:07

The Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth) is one of Rome's legendary attractions and most famous symbols, monolithic marble mask that in 1632 was walled into one of the outside walls of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. The church is just a short walk from the Coliseum and from the central Piazza Venezia Square and the mask, with a bearded face, hollow nose, eyes and mouth is one of the most popular stops on a tour of Rome.  Not so much for its artistic merits, but for the legend that lies behind it and has captured people’s imagination.  

The mask was once a manhole cover

Of course there is more than one legend associated with the mask, but the most popular links it with the gods of water and of the river Tiber which flows close by. Compared to its fame today the mask – which is almost two metres in diameter - this attraction started out life as a very common and simple manhole cover. Which is why scholars favour the theory that the face belongs to a deity linked to the world of water. 

A test for lying merchants

In ancient Rome, in fact, manholes often bore the effigy of river deities, as they “swallowed” rainwater and carried it towards the sea. Another legend would have it that the mask was the cover for a scared well at which Roman merchants swore their honesty when buying and selling. Anyone suspected of telling a lie was put to the test and had his hand put into the mask’s mouth. If he had told a lie the hand, it was said, would be bitten off by the avenging god.  

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Gregory Peck plays a trick on Audrey Hepburn

The mask plays a comic role in William Wyler’s iconic Roman Holiday when Gregory Peck, taking Audrey Hepburn on a Vespa tour the Eternal City, stops at Santa Maria in Cosmedin and has the actress put her hand into the mouth.  Nothing happens to her, but when he puts his hand in he roars in pain, but quickly reveals to the relieved Hepburn that it was only a joke.

The Foro Boario was Rome’s ancient meat market

The mask is in the area of the former Foro Boario, which was Rome’s cattle market, and is a particularly fascinating part of the Eternal City. It has many ancient monuments including the richly decorated Arch of the Argentari, the four-sided the Arch of Janus which must have housed sculptures in its many niches, and the little circular Temple of Hercules Victor. 

The basilica has a beautiful inlaid pavement

Most visitors to the Mouth of Truth as so busy getting their photos taken that they don’t even look inside the church, which is a great pity.  The brick campanile of the basilica is one of the most beautiful in all of Rome and inside it has a very beautiful geometrical inlaid Medieval Cosmatesque stone pavement.  For information: https://www.turismoroma.it

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