A Tourist in Rome - Mouth of Truth

Location:Via Luigi Petroselli, at Via del Circo Massimo, on the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin
Metro:Circo Massimo and Bus #160, or see it on my To the Forum Boarium and Beyond Walking Tour instead
Time:about 30 minutes (depending on the length of the line)
Cost:Free
Hours:8 AM - 1 PM and 3 PM - 6 PM

The Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verita) is a 5.75-foot-diameter, cracked pavonazzetto marble disc with the image of a bearded human face with his mouth slightly open. It weights over a ton. It stands on a little Corinthian capital in the left-hand end of the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The crack across it passes through the left eye, nose and mouth, and forced repair of the upper lip in a different type of marble. A good guess at its date of creation is during the 1st century BC, but this is only a guess since other sources suggest the 2nd century AD. It is generally thought to be a drain cover or manhole cover, perhaps for the Cloaca Maxima sewer. But it might also have been a wall fountain or a well cover; nobody's sure. A recent study has identified the head, which has lobster-claw horns in the hair and dolphins in its beard, as Oceanus, the god of the underground river that was believed to encircle the world, whose association in myth with Hercules suggests that the ancient drain it covered was located somewhere nearby. If you can see lobster-claw horns in the hair and dolphins in the beard you have a better imagination than me; I just see a bearded homeless guy who lives in the portico of a church. In any case it was placed in the portico of the church in the 17th century. The object is famous for its legend: if you put your hand inside the mouth and tell a lie, your fingers will be bitten off. That makes it quite possibly the world's first lie detector. This legend was popularized in the 1953 film Roman Holiday in which Gregory Peck brought Audrey Hepburn to the Mouth of Truth and scared her into a hug by acting as if his hand had been bitten off. Great movie; go watch it. In any case, partly because it's so famous from the movie, and partly because there's convenient bus parking in front, this has become a major tourist attraction. If you just want to see it, you can peek through the gate. But most people want their picture taken, with their hand in the mouth, and to do this you must wait in a line that ranges anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, and contribute €1 or so at the end of the line. You usually hand your camera to your companion, or to the person behind you in line, then go stuff your hand into the mouth. To keep the line moving, a sign states you may only take one photo per visitor. Every souvenier shop in Rome sells a 6-inch Mouth of Truth for several euros; one hangs beside my bedroom closet door.

    
The Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verita), on the porch of Santa Maria in Cosmedin
See all MouthOfTruth photos.
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