Bocca della Verità: facts, history and legends
by Rita Benini and Massimo Portolani
Facts we know about the Bocca della Verita':
Questions to be answered about the Bocca della Verita'
What is this huge stone face inside a Christian Church in Rome? How did it finish there?
Is the legend about it true? What do we know about it?
These are some of the questions my wife and I had in mind when we started investigating
the celebrated Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth in english).
Why did we start? it is one of the strange things that happen in life. In 1987 we were producing
electronic machines for amusement parks and one of them was a palm reader; I went to Rome to present it to
a possible customer - Mr.Luciano Preziotti - he said he would buy it, but he wanted it to look like the
«Bocca della VeritÓ». I didn't know what it was but when we finally made the machine I fully understood its
appeal and its power.
Since then we have produced 4 different models of this machine that has proved successful worldwide.
As a tribute to it, I decided to write a book about the original Bocca della Verit, with the precious aid
of my wife Rita, who is a student of Archeology at the University of Bologna, in Ravenna.
What is the Bocca della Verita'
There are many stories about the Bocca della Verit and I am convinced that some of them are wrong
and some are dubious. It is difficult to say what the Bocca della Verita' really was; we can try to
guess, studying the Mouth of Truth itself and reading what has been written in the past.
The basic story that is usually told is that the Mouth of Truth is a drain cover. This appears quite
wrong and was not believed by scholars even in the xviii century. The erosion on the face does not
appear to show that water entered the holes or even that, water went out of it. Somebody claimed
it was the front of a fountain but for various reasons it seems dubious.
Another story relates it to Mercurius, the roman God who protected thieves and merchants,
because not far from the Bocca della VeritÓ present location there is the water spring «Fonte Capena», described by the roman
poet Ovidio, in his work «Fasti». This would in some way justify the legend of it being a spot
where people swore the truth. Actually it appears there is no relation between Mercurius and The Mouth of Truth.
Another story is related to the god Faunus that is the roman equivalent of the greek god PAN (Παν)
from which the word PANIC originates. Somebody wrote the Bocca della VeritÓ is the forest God Faunus,
because of its horns and of the 2 testicles in the beard, representing its masculine power.
This thesis appears interesting but I think there is a better one.
Let's analyse the pros and cons of each one and state our point of view, formed after reading old books and studying the
Mouth of Truth in details.
Mouth of truth as a drain cover: this is the most popular theory. Many scholars claimed it in the past,
among them Visconti, Winkelmann, Paolo Maffei and Pancirolo. I believe, as Crescimbeni did in 1715, that the
quality of the marble, the size, the finishing and the fact that it represents a God, are all details against this hypothesis.
If it were in the street, as drain cover where a lot of water flows, there would be evident signs of consumption arount the holes
where water had flown. Anyway, in support of the drain cover thesis, Visconti found a verse of the roman poet Properzio: quum subito
Triton ore recondit aquam, meaning that after the rain the mouth of a triton hides the water.
Mouth of truth as a fountain: Another theory is that the Mouth of Truth was a fountain. Who believes in this hypothesis
claims evidence on the fact that there are 2 holes on both sides, as if it were attached to a wall. I don't think the
Mouth of Truth was a fountain because, in that case, the fixing holes, for such a huge size, would have been 4 and because
it doesn't explain the holes in the eyes and nostrils. Besides this, if it were a fountain, it should be worn below the mouth
due to the water.
Mouth of truth as a Deity or as a Temple Ara: this is a possibility to be considered because in the Tiberina island,
near the place where the stone medaillon lays now, there was a temple called Jupiter Jurarius. Now in its place there is
the church of San Giovanni Calibita (N.2 in the picture). That temple was probably a place where people swore oaths and
it could be that the Bocca della Verita' was inside this temple. I don't believe it was the Ara of that temple because
the Bocca della Verità is not a mask of Jupiter but rather of the god Oceanus.
Mouth of truth as the cover of a sacred well: Water has always been sacred to religions. Even today we
use Holy Water in Christianity and other religions. In many temples there was a well with sacred water, one hypothesis could be that
the Bocca della Verità was a cover of such well. In the Tiberina Island, in the spot where now the church of S.Bartolomeo stands
(N.3 in the picture),
there was the Temple of Aesculapius, the God of medicine. Inside this temple there was a well and its water was
used to cure people. In the middle ages they found that this water was polluted and stopped using it.
The well is still visible inside the church. Could the Bocca della Verit have been the cover of such well? I doubt
it because the mouth hole is too little to take water out of it. Could be that still it was the cover and
there was a different arrangement for the water. It is difficult to say. Anyway this would not explain the legend
surrounding it regarding oaths and truth.
Mouth of truth as the cover of a temple water collector: this is the last hypothesis, and it is the one I believe
is the most probable. The Mouth of Truth would have been in the middle of a temple with an opening in the roof,
as the Pantheon. In this case the quantity of water would be limited and this would explain the
absence of significant erosion near the holes. It would make sense to use such quality marble and the image of the God of the Ocean
(of waters) for such purpose, the 2 holes on the side would explain a kind of horizontal fixing, the holes in the eyes and nostrils
would make sense as water receptors.
It could well be that the bocca was in the temple of Jupiter Jurarius, where oaths were made, as a water collector, and for this reason
the legend remained attached to it when it was found, may be after having been hidden in the river to prevent its
destruction by the christians (as a middle age legend detailed elsewhere in this page claims). This hypothesis also explains the
verse of Properzio quum subito Triton ore recondit aquam, that means “after the rain the mouth of a triton hides the water”. A Triton
represents the son of Neptunus. In our case the Bocca della Verità represents the more important Oceanus, that according to Homer is the origin of all
Gods and life.
Which deity does it represent?
After we have investigated what could have been the function of such mask, let's see which pagan God
it could represent.
Bocca della Verità as the God Mercurius: this is a tale that was popular in the middle ages according to
the legend regarding Giuliano the apostate. Not far from the place where the Mouth of Truth is
located, there is the «Fonte Capena» (Capena Spring), which was sacred to the God Mercurius. For this reason it could be possible to
think that the Bocca della Verita' had something to do with it. Actually the mask has nothing to do with Mercurius and, as we have already
discussed, it seems that the bocca had another function. Besides this, the Mercurius fount was the opposite of a place where to
swear the truth. Its water was thought to be sacred and was believed to provide forgivance for all lies previously told; this feature made it
expecially popular among thieves and merchants, both of them protected by Mercurius.
In this regard, it is interesting to quote some verses from the Fasti of the roman poet Ovidio. My simple translation follows:
“Est aqua Mercurii portae vicina Capenae, si iuvat expertis credere, numen habet. Huc venit incinctus tunica mercator et urna
purus suffita, quam ferat, haurit aquam. Uda fit hinc laurus, lauro sparguntur ab uda omnia, quae dominos sunt habitura novos;
spargit et ipse suos lauro rorante capillos et peragit solita fallere voce preces: “ablue praeteriti periuria temporis,”
inquit “ablue praeteritae perfida verba die sive ego te feci testem
falsove citavi non audituri numina magna Iovis, sive deum prudens alium divamque fefelli, abstulerint celeres improba verba Noti,
et pateant veniente die periuria nobis, nec curent superi si qua locutus ero. Da modo lucra mihi, da facto gaudia lucro, et fac,
ut emptori verba dedisse iuvet.” Talia Mercurius poscientem ridet ab alto, se memor Ortygias surripuisse boves.”
“Near Porta Capena there is a Mercurius spring, that, if it is worth believing the experts, has got special powers.
Merchants go there, collect the holy water and take it home. Using laurus leaves, they sprinkle with it
all the goods they are about to sell and even their hair, and with their voice, that knows how to tell tales, they so pray:
“wash the lies I said in the past and yesterday, either if I called you as my fake witness or if I used the name of Jupiter
hoping he would not hear me, or if I, in the same manner, cheated any other god or goddess, let the wind disperse my false words.
Let me have the chance of lying again tomorrow without any deity noticing it. Give me a lot of riches and let me
enjoy them, let me profit from having cheated my customers”. Mercurius smiles, hearing all this from above, having himself
once stolen the bulls of Ortigia.”
I would say that this attitude didn't change much in 2000 years. Anyway we think there is no relation between Mercurius and the Mouth of Truth.
Bocca della Verità as the God Faunus: this theory assumes that the Mouth of Truth is the forest god Faunus,
represented with horns and hooves, god of wilderness and fertility and giver of horacles.
According to this theory the Bocca della Verita' has got horns, it has some kind of wolves´ faces visible in it and has 2 testicles,
hidden in the lowerpart of the beard, representing virility. We think it is highly improbable that the Mouth of Truth is the god Faunus, because
its supposed horns are actually crab claws, there is a fish on the left side, the hair is not sheep wool but rather fluent hair, resembling water. The 2 testicles
are an interesting discovery, but we have another explanation for them.
Bocca della Verità as a river God: It could well be that the Bocca della Verita' is a river god because
of the position where it is now. In that area there was the first river harbour in ancient Rome; nearby it is still visible
the temple of Portunus, the tutelar deity of the port. Anyway we think the signs that can be seen into it point to a specific deity,
that is Oceanus.
Bocca della Verità as the God Oceanus. We think the Bocca della VeritÓ is the God Oceanus (Οκεανοσ in Greek) and was
probably the cover of a water collector inside a temple in the Foro Boario area. Oceanus, or Okeanos in the greek mithology,
is the origin of all. Oceanus was a very special kind of river god, because the river Oceanus was the river that encircled the world,
to which all other rivers flew. Achilles' shield had the mighty Oceanus all round the outermost rim. It was the supreme river god and for this
reason we think the Mouth of Truth represents it, and was somewhere in the area of the foro boario, where the first Rome port was.
We believe the Mouth of Truth is Oceanus because it doesn't have horns, but rather crab claws, as it is clearly visible
in this equalized picture of the Bocca della Verita'.
In the same picture are clearly evident: a fish in the left side and 2 round protuberances in the lower beard (T1,T2).
We think those are the heads of 2 dolphins similarly to what we can see in a
bronze head of Oceanus.
It could be that those are testicles and this could make sense according to Greek mithology.
In the beginning there was Uranus, the sky, and Gea (or Gaia)
the earth, his wife. Every night Uranus came to his wife and many sons (the Titans) and daughters were born,
but Uranus kept hiding them underground preventing them from coming outside. Gea thought something should be done and asked
her son Chronos for assistance. Chronos waited until Uranus came and cut his father's testicles and threw them into the Ocean.
This could be a reason why we see these 2 testicles in the beard of Oceanus.
After looking well at the mouth of truth and having studied computer-enhanced images, we are inclined to think that these are