In the portico of the Paleochristian church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, at the foot of the Aventine hills, a Roman statue is conserved that has attracted the attention and curiosity of tourists from all over the world. It is the "Bocca della Verità", which in English means the Mouth of Truth, an ancient stone mask from the Classical period that represents a river god with an open mouth, wide eyes and a flowing mane of hair.
The reason for its unshakeable fame is a rather macabre legend associated with the mask since ancient times. If a liar puts their hand inside its mouth, they will lose it.
This legend probably originates from Roman times. It is said that the rich wife of a Roman noble was accused of adultery. The woman denied the accusations, but her husband wanted to put her to the test by making her hand inside the stone mouth. Knowing perfectly well that she was lying, the woman used a very clever strategy. In front of a group of curious bystanders who had gathered around the Mouth of Truth, the man who was actually her lover embraced her and kissed her. She pretended that she didn't know him and accused him of being a madman and the crowd chased him away.
When she put her hand into the mouth, the woman declared that she had never kissed any other man apart from her husband and the poor madman who had just kissed her. In this way she was certain that she hadn't lied and her hand was saved. The betrayed husband saved her honour, but the Mouth of Truth lost its credibility and it is said that since that day it no longer carried out its function as a right and unappeasable judge.
The mask is so famous that even Hollywood honoured it in a film about the city called Roman Holiday. In one of the most memorable scenes, Gregory Peck, in front of a terrified Audrey Hepburn, daringly challenges the mask by putting his hand inside its mouth.
Even today, this ancient mask is the cause of queues of tourists who line up outside the beautiful Paleochristian church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The thrill of the risk is evidently too strong and you honestly can't resist putting your hand inside this harmless, but unsettling stone face and hope for the best!
This church was founded in the 6th century on the ruins of the statio annonae, the food-distribution center of classical Rome. Enlarged by Pope Hadrian I in the 8th century, it was given to the Greek community who lived near the Tiber, in a district called the Ripa Grecae. From that time the church was known as Santa Maria in Cosmedin, after the name of a quarter in Constantinople, Beneath the portico is the famous mouth of truth (Bocca della verità).
Throughout its history this church was repeatedly restored and redecorated, especially in the 12th and 13th centuries. Noteworthy features include the portico, the elegant Romanesque campanile, the schola cantorum (choir), the rich Cosmatesque pavement and decorations, and the Gothic baldacchino over the high altar.
In the sacristy there is a fragment of 8th-century mosaic from the original St Peter's Basilica. The block of tufa from which the tiny crypt was hollowed out is thought to be the remains of an altar from the Forum Boarium erected in honor of Hercules (in view of his victory over the giant Cacus, who stole his cattle). At the end of the last century, the architect Giovanni Battista Giovenale gave the church its excessively medieval appearance.