In mediaeval times it was used as a fidelity test; in the 1950s it was made famous by Audrey Hepburn… but until now, the origins of a mysterious ancient ‘lie detector’ have remained an enigma.
Thanks to painstaking research – and a postcard – a University of St Andrews academic believes he has rediscovered the true identity and function of the Roman tourist attraction known as ‘Bocca della Verità’ (‘The Mouth of Truth’).
Now located in the porch of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the same Roman church that preserves the relics of Saint Valentine, archaeologists have long puzzled over whether the ‘Bocca’, which has holes for eyes and nostrils as well as its mouth, was once the spout of an ancient fountain or an ornate manhole cover.
Dr Fabio Barry, a lecturer in Art History at St Andrews, believes he has worked out the truth – that the ‘Bocca’ was originally a drain cover commissioned by the Emperor Hadrian for a shrine to Hercules.
The researcher’s work puts paid to the mediaeval legend that the ‘Bocca’ is a lie detector. The legend – that if you lied while placing your hand in its mouth, the ‘Bocca’ would bite it off – is most famously featured in the film Roman Holiday. But the idea persists today with thousands of couples queuing up every summer to try their hand – and test their lovers’ honesty – at the enigmatic sculpture made from precious marble.
Dr Barry explained, “The famous scene in the film Roman Holiday, where Gregory Peck gets Audrey Hepburn to put her hand in the ‘Bocca’ because he knows she is hiding the truth about her identity, sums up at least five centuries of tradition in a minute and a half: what is first recorded as a chastity or fidelity test in 1450 had become a general lie detector by 1800.
“Today, droves of expectant tourists still line up to try their hands at it. But it is an enduring irony that the myth continues to prosper, because while the ‘Bocca’ condemns the lies of others, it refuses to disclose its own secret.
“Despite its worldwide fame, we know next to nothing about the original meaning of the ‘Mouth of Truth’. For three centuries, archaeologists have attempted to identify the face on this marble disk as Jupiter, Mercury, the Nile and even a totem of a man-eating lion from Asia Minor, but without ever reaching any consensus.”
As a half-Italian youngster growing up in Britain, Fabio travelled regularly to Italy with his family, and became engrossed in Roman art and architecture. Once he was an adult, he trained as an architect before eventually moving into academia to pursue his interests in the architecture and arts of Rome over many centuries.
Remarkably, although Dr Barry had seen the “Bocca della Verità” countless times, it was only after looking at a postcard sent by his late mother from Rome that the true identity of the famous face dawned on him. He explained, “I was working in the National Gallery in Washington DC, and I had the postcard pinned over my desk. From time to time I would glance at it when I got bored with whatever I was writing.
“One day I noticed the face had horns, and that they were forked like crab pincers. I immediately grabbed a lexicon of mythological imagery and realised that this face could only be Oceanus, the god who personified the unending river that was believed to surround the flat earth like a moat. But Oceanus was more than a geographical limit, he was the end of the world. Conversely, mythology held he was the source of all waters and – like ‘The Deep’ in Genesis – the beginning of all things.”
Dr Barry believes that the ‘Bocca’ was originally a drain cover, but one that stood within a temple or religious precinct somewhere on the present site and dedicated to Hercules. He said, “In myth, Hercules had twice set sail from Cadiz and gone beyond Ocean to get the golden apples from the Garden of Hesperides and cattle from the Island of Geryon. The significance of this is that Hercules had gone beyond reality, and a succession of emperors competed with him so as to push the frontiers of Empire beyond the boundary of the world, in fact onto a cosmic scale.”
The St Andrews researcher thinks for historical and stylistic reasons that the Spanish emperor Hadrian (whose mother even came from Cadiz) was most likely to have commissioned the “Bocca,” especially because by crossing over to Britain, he had equalled Hercules’ paranormal feat.
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Ref: Mouth of Truth 230712