Mouth of Truth spills its dirty secret: Rome tourist attraction is drain cover, says academic

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953)
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953)
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AUDREY Hepburn was too scared to put her hand in it, while Gregory Peck pretended he’d lost his. Now new research claims to reveal that the famous Bocca della Verità, or “Mouth of Truth”, which featured in the Audrey Hepburn classic ­Roman Holiday and is said to bite off the hands of those who tell lies, is really an ancient drain cover dating from the time of Hadrian’s Wall.

Dr Fabio Barry, a lecturer in art history at St Andrews, believes he has identified the true function of one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions, as well as dating it for the first time – to the reign of Emperor Hadrian, who ruled Rome between AD 117 and AD 138.

Tourists try their luck at the Bocca, said to bite off the hand of those who tell lies

Tourists try their luck at the Bocca, said to bite off the hand of those who tell lies

“It is this incredible tourist landmark in Rome that everybody goes to see, largely because of the film with Audrey Hepburn, but nobody knew anything about it at all,” Barry told Scotland on Sunday. “There was no historical record for it and it was almost impossible to find anything out about it. Being able to do so has been a mixture of luck, research and training on my part.”

The legend of the Bocca, thought to stretch back to ­medieval times, is that if you lie while placing your hand in its mouth, the Bocca will bite it off. The idea persists today, and thousands of couples queue up every summer to try their hand – and test their ­lover’s honesty – at the ­enigmatic marble sculpture.

Located in the porch of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the same Roman church that preserves the relics of Saint Valentine, archaeologists have long puzzled over the origin of the Bocca della Verità. The disturbing looking face has holes for eyes and nostrils, as well as its mouth, and it was posited that it was once the spout of an ancient fountain or an ornate manhole cover. However Barry said that the Bocca was most likely to be a drain cover, and that the face depicted on it, which also features horns, was that of the Roman god Oceanus.

“It’s so big and such a heavy thing that it was unlikely to have been moved from this place to somewhere else. This area of Rome where it was ­located was where several temples dedicated to Hercules had been,” said Barry. “Once I confirmed that it was the god Oceanus on the cover, I started looking for connections between Hercules and Ocean.”

In his research Barry discovered that the only Roman emperor to have coins issued that featured both gods was Hadrian, who built Hadrian’s Wall, which divided Scotland and England. Intriguingly, Newcastle is also home to the only ­Roman shrine to Oceanus outside of Italy.

Hercules was popular with Hadrian because, just like the famous emperor himself, he had originally come from Spain. The unique marble the Bocca is made from also supports the theory.

“The marble comes from Western Anatolia in Turkey and wasn’t imported until the middle of the first century, so it can’t be earlier than that. What I’m suggesting is that this drain cover was in a ­temple precinct dedicated to Hercules. All these things come together to make sense that this is what it was.”

As a half-Italian youngster growing up in Britain, Barry travelled regularly to Italy with his family, and as a child regularly visited the Bocca. However, 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.”

Barry has published his findings in the art history journal the Art Bulletin, and hopes it may receive wider acknowledgement from the classics community.

A spokesperson for the Italian State Tourist Board UK and Ireland said: “There are a number of different views on the Bocca della Verità although really, nobody knows its true history. It’s become very famous, partly because it was featured in Roman Holiday, and also because it is at the entrance of a beautiful church. Whatever conclusions researchers draw, the Mouth of Truth will always have a popular appeal.”

» ecowing@scotlandonsunday.com