Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Mouth of Truth, Fontana dei Tritoni

Santa Maria in Cosmedin, la Bocca della Verità, Fontana dei Tritoni

It is hard to believe that sometimes the true reason to visit one of the most ancient churches in Rome Santa Maria in Cosmedin is to see the manhole cover! Antique round marble slab portraying the mask of Triton (or Oceanus) dates back to the IV century BC and reaches 1.75 m in diameter. Historians believe that the slab was used as the manhole cover in one of the ancient Roman temples. The slab is called Bocca della Verita (the Mouth of Truth). 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, the mouth was used as the lie detector to subject the faithfulness of wives and husbands. The name Mouth of Truth dates back to 1485. It was placed in the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the 1631 on the order of Pope Urban VIII Barberini. Today tourists stand in a long line to make a picture with their hands stuck in the most famous manhole in the world! The Mouth of Truth is known mostly from its appearance in the 1953 film Roman Holiday. The film also uses the Mouth of Truth as a storytelling device since both Audrey Hepburn's and Gregory Peck's characters are not initially truthful with each other.

The basilica Santa Maria in Cosmedin was built in the VIII century during the Byzantine Papacy over the remains of the antique temple in the Forum Boarium. In the IV century the temple housed Statio annonae, one of the food distribution centres of ancient Rome. At the end of the VI century the centre was transferred under protection of church and in the VIII century Pope Hadrian I ordered to re-build the church which was later granted to the Greek Christians who escaped to Rome from religious suppression in Byzantine Empire. The church was called Santa Maria Schola Graeca because of the community name, and a close street is still called della Greca. The second name, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the church received because of its beauty (adjective cosmedine from Greek kosmidion - ornate). The church was destroyed at the end of the XI century by Norman troops, but was restored in the XII century when the portico of red brick was added along with the tallest medieval bell tower in Rome. The bell that dates back to 1289 is still in the bell tower. In 1718 the church was brought up to a Baroque style, mainly expressed by a new facade and the final restoration works took place between 1894 and 1899. The current structure has three naves divided by two rows of columns which were most probably delivered from antique structures.

The interior preserved frescoes of the VIII-XII centuries, the gothic altar made of red granite and magnificent mosaic floor of the XII century performed in cosmatesco technique. The sacristy houses a precious 8th-century mosaic fragment Epiphany brought here from the Old St Peter's Basilica. In a side altar on the left of the church is kept the flower crowned skull of St Valentine. According to one legend Saint Valentine secretly married couples despite the order of the Emperor and that is why he was executed. According to other stories he was executed on the order of the Emperor Aurelian for Saint Valentine did not want to abjure his religion. Under the altar there is a small crypt of the VIII century that holds numerous relics discovered in the catacombs, there is an admission fee. During the excavation works in 1893 foundation of the ancient temple was discovered. Archaeologists assert that these are the remains of the Great Altar of Hercules which according to a legend was erected on the spot of one of the Labours of Hercules. The gilded bronze statue of Hercules discovered during the excavation works in the Forum Boarium is kept in the Capitoline Museums. They say that space in front of the basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin was an execution spot, and that the last execution took place in 1868.

When reconstruction works on Bocca della Verita square were completed, Fontana dei Tritoni was placed there. The fountain was designed in 1715 according to the design of Francesco Carlo Bizzaccheri by sculptors Francesco Moratti and Filippo Bai. It can be easily seen that the fountain was commissioned by the Pope Clement XI Albani due to numerous heraldic symbols of his family: octagonal basin that looked like a star and three mountains topped by a star. The basin of the Fountain dei Tritoni has the shape of a star and the tritons support a shell with mountains inside (heraldic symbols of the Pope again, whose coat of arms was designed on both sides of the fountain). According to the original design there were four compositions of masks at the edges of the fountain. Due to the low water pressure, they were removed in the XIX century and the fountain itself had long been in disrepair. Only in the XX century during reconstruction of the square the fountain was restored and presently functions again.

Address: Piazza della Bocca della Verita, 18
Opening hours: Mon-Sun 10 am – 5 pm
How to reach: metro Circo Massimo
Coordinates: 41.888054, 12.481576