Feb 29th, 2020, 01:38 PM

Visiting La Bocca Della Veritá

By Hannah Latorre
Placing my hand in La Bocca Della Veritá Image Credit: Hannah Latorre
Why do people travel to this mysterious statue?

After three days of traveling Germany, Austria, Hungary and two hours after landing in Italy I was standing in line at the Piazza Della Verità, to visit a giant humanoid disc mounted outside the walls of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin Church. As I stood there I questioned the appeal of the mysterious monument. We waited on line for about ten minutes before approaching the face. I would have to admit, the idea of touching a round disc placed on a wall with no exact knowledge of where it came from was daunting. The sculpture's mythologic history is what makes it so intriguing, but as time progressed it felt pointless to stand on a line to touch a stone probably infested with germs. I opted to only hover my hand in the mouth, while despite the emerging threat of COVID-19, many tourists were willing to place their hands on the slab of stone in the opening. 

La Bocca Della Verità Image Credit: Flickr.com, Downloading in Progress 

Many people know La Bocca Della Verità from its film appearance. Written into the famous Roman Holiday featuring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, the two characters visit the monument and test their honesty. Peck decides to play a prank on Hepburn by screaming when he puts his hand in the mouth of the statue. This causes Hepburn to jump and panic. Directors decided to keep this shot in the film, as it was an authentic reaction on Hepburn's behalf. 

 A scene from Roman Holiday Image Credit: HotelSanFrancesco.net 

But what makes the act of sticking one's hand in the mouth of the harmless statue so appealing besides its feature in Roman Holiday?  While historians aren't certain of what the pagan visage represents or its meaning, there are theories that date back to the 1st century CE. The original usage for the humanoid disc was theorized to be a ceremonial well cover, a fountain decoration or even a manhole cover. There are many pagan Gods that it may represent from Faunus to Oceanus. But again, it is uncertain. 

Despite the debate about who and what the monument represents, the most common characteristic of the face is that it acted as a lie detector. Since the Middle Ages, it was believed that if one told a lie while their hand was in the mouth of the sculpture, their hand would be bitten off. This belief originated when supposedly the mouth was used during trials, where the accused would put their hand in the mouth and if they were found to be untruthful a hidden axeman would chop off their hand.

This research on the Mouth of Truth made me even more curious to see it and experience what it felt like to place my hand on this ancient stone. Google Maps lead me to the entrance of the Cosmedin Church and I noticed a line wrapped around the outside of the building. A friend and I approached the line and peaked into the gates to see the large round disc. Indeed, all of these people were in fact in line to put their hand in its mouth. I overheard a family standing behind me in line. "Are you nervous?" The mom asked the little boy. The little boy shrugged. Everyone in line was nonchalant about the experience. Clearly, no one expected somebody's hand to be bitten off. Nevertheless, I tried to put myself in the mindset of ancient times and imagine how one would have felt approaching the face. 

Why were individuals so convinced that their hands would be bitten off by this seemingly harmless statue? I began thinking about how myth and urban legends circulate through communities. The communication that our societies have today is very different to how societies communicated centuries ago. Part of what helps fuel this myth of dismemberment is the uncertainty of the meaning and usage of the monument. All we have is the myth to cling onto to make some sense of why it was here and what it did. Even though logical reasoning would prove that your hand will not be bitten off from a slab of stone, it is still an interesting narrative that we have carried on throughout decades. 

Visiting La Bocca Della Veritá is a short experience. Once it was our turn you were allowed one picture. However, it is worth it to step into the church after putting your truth to the test. The church is comprised of 12th-century architecture made from Cosmati stone. Not only is the architecture and pulpits beautifully authentic, but relics of St. Valentine rest behind the altar as well. 

Inside of Santa Maria in Cosmedin Church Image Credit: Jim Forest, Flickr.com 

You can visit La Bocca Della Veritá at the entrance of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church located in the Piazza Della Bocca Della Veritá. A two-euro donation is suggested and highly encouraged as it helps the church.