Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and I’m reminded of a legend involving an attraction in Santa Maria in Cosmedin, a church in Rome where Saint Valentine’s bones are supposedly kept. The most famous attraction in this church is not the saint; it is the legendary Boca della Veritas—The Mouth of Truth.
We aren’t exactly sure what the Boca della Veritas is, maybe part of a fountain or a massive manhole cover from Ancient Rome. We do know that since the Middle Ages this object has served a curious purpose—as a lie detector. Here’s how it works: place your hand in the oracle’s mouth and he’ll bite it off if you’re telling a lie. If you have a penchant for romantic movies you might remember this from the film Roman Holiday, where Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn test the oracle with a few fibs.
I can tell you from firsthand experience that the oracle does not work. Perhaps it once did, and this is where the legend comes into play. Five hundred years ago the Boca della Veritas told the truth so accurately that no one dared to lie and place a hand in its mouth. As the story goes, a young couple was brought before the oracle. The young man was vicious and cruel. He’d been ordered by his father to marry this girl. The girl had been likewise ordered by her father to marry this vain and disagreeable young man.
Honoring ancient tradition, friends and family brought the couple before the oracle to place their hands in the god’s mouth and proclaim that they had not so much as kissed anyone else. Her heart was broken because she’d been forced to give up her secret lover, a kind and generous man to whom she’d given her heart as well as her lips.
She was terrified to put her hand in the large stone mouth, terrified that it would be bitten off if she lied and terrified that she’d be ostracized and thrown out of her parents’ home if her secret became known. She didn’t know what to do. Just as her fingers reached the ancient orifice, a beggar in rags burst through the crowd, grabbed her and planted a passionate kiss on her mouth. It was her lover in disguise. The crowd, having no idea who he was, seized the crazy fellow and threw him out of the church.
The young woman smiled, placed her hand inside the Boca della Veritas’ mouth and told the truth. “I have been kissed passionately by a man who is not my husband.”
Her fiancé was humiliated to have his future wife—his property—devalued in such a public fashion. He refused to marry her and stormed out of the church. Her friends and family took pity on her for being tarnished by a madman. Months later she convinced her father to permit her to marry the man she loved, the same man who’d kissed her in the church. The two lived a long and happy life.
Realizing it had been scammed, the Boca della Veritas got angry and decided to call it quits. This hasn’t prevented thousands of tourists over the centuries from flocking to the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin to place their sweaty hands inside the stone mouth.
Should you decide to join them be careful not to lie while doing so. At any moment the oracle might decide to get back into the lie detector business. People with nicknames like lefty and stumpy will have a lot of explaining to do.
Happy Valentine’s Day