Saturday, February 7, 2009

Speaking the Truth

Bocca della Verita

The other day I was on the bus going past the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and saw that there was no line to get into the front porch of the church. Usually there are scores of tourists waiting for a moment to approach the Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth) and take a picture with their hand in the mouth of the large stone face. ( Audrey Hepburn did this in the 1953 film Roman Holiday.) I jumped off the bus and took the opportunity to get a photo of this ancient Roman artifact.

I have no idea how this 12th century porch became a place for the display of the Bocca della Verita. For centruies people have said that the mouth would bite the hand of liers. It was even used as a lie detector during trials of adulterous wives during the middle ages. The men associated with these accused adulterers must have arranged for this stone to determine innocence. Attempts to identify the stone face have called it an ancient fountainhead or a manhole cover from the near by Cloaca Maxima.

The Cloaca Maxima is a sewer system adjacent to where the church stands today. Dating from the 5th Century BC, the sewer was one of Rome's great technological accomplishments. The first branch of it, which is still used today, drained the area of the Forum. It was later extended elsewhere in the city, with tunnels said to be wide enough so that inspections could be done by men on chariots.

Just outside the city walls I have found another "bocca" at the Hotel Abitart. This is called the Bocca della Bugia, the Mouth of Lies. I wonder if we will ever see lines of tourists waiting to have their pictures taken while they put their hands in this "mouth."

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