Horse's Mouth

Piazza della Bocca della Verità 18. (Open Map)


La Bocca della Verità (English: the Mouth of Truth) is an image, carved from Pavonazzo marble, of a man-like face, located in the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The sculpture is thought to be part of a first-century ancient Roman fountain, or perhaps a manhole cover, portraying one of several possible pagan gods, probably Oceanus. Most Romans believe that the 'Bocca' represents the ancient god of the river Tiber.

The most famous characteristic of the Mouth, however, is its role as a lie detector. Starting from the Middle Ages, it was believed that if one told a lie with one's hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it would be bitten off. There was also a medieval legend, wrongly believed to originate with the Roman poet Virgil, of an adulterous empress who managed to deceive her husband in a trial using the Mouth. This is an infrequent subject in medieval and Renaissance art, forming part of the Power of Women literary topos. The piece was placed in the portico of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the 17th century. This church is also home to the relics of Saint Valentine.

The story of the empress is one of the "Large Power of Women" series of woodcuts by Lucas van Leyden of c. 1512, though it is not commonly included in such groups.
The Mouth of Truth is known to English-speaking audiences mostly from its appearance in the 1953 film Roman Holiday. The film also uses the Mouth of Truth as a storytelling device since both Hepburn's and Peck's characters are not initially truthful with each other.
This scene from Roman Holiday was parodied in the 2000 Japanese film Sleeping Bride by Hideo Nakata. It was also replicated in the film Only You starring Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei.
The climactic scene of Robert Silverberg's 1968 novella Nightwings, in which the characters reveal their secrets, takes place at the Mouth of Truth in a futuristic Rome (now named "Roum").
In Het geheim van de afgebeten vingers by Dutch writer Rindert Kromhout, the fingers of lying children are cut off by a skeleton with a scythe who lives in the Capuchin Crypt in the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.

Electronic coin-operated reproductions of the Mouth are found in fairgrounds of Spain, Hungary and even Japan, at some motorway service stations in the UK and Croatia, usually together with photo booths. Both created by environmental artist Bryan Morse, there are also full size replicas of the Mouth of Truth at Alta Vista Gardens in Vista, California and at the private Pikake Botanical Gardens in Valley Center, California.
There is a similar sculpture of a lion in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India that, according to local lore, bites off one's hand if a lie is told.
In France at Parc Astérix, one reproduction of the Mouth is used as a bin and thanks the people dropping garbage down its throat.