Mouth of Truth and St. Valentine’s Skull

Supremely confident.

August 23, 2011 — A stone face that bites the hands off liars. The skull of the man responsible for annual obligations of heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. All that’s missing for a party is a kiddie pool full of tequila, a salt shaker the size of a fire hydrant, and the U.S. women’s beach volleyball team dressed in Yo Gabba Gabba costumes.

Rome’s Santa Maria in Cosmedin isn’t anywhere near the list of Rome’s most beautiful churches. Its most notable architectural feature is a tall, squarish bell tower that is designed in such a way that it almost apologizes for its own existence. Inside, the church is just as plain. Granted, not Baptist church plain, but still certainly pretty simple according to Rome standards.

Of course, the church has some impressive history. It dates back to the 6th century at a location that goes even further back in the record. But, again, this is Rome, and being ancient is a commonality shared by everything in the city, from palaces to pavestones.

However, Santa Maria in Cosmedin has on display two artifacts that make it worth skipping every other church that claims mere breathtaking beauty, the Bocca della Verita and the skull of St. Valentine.

Bocca della Verita is Italian for Mouth of Truth, and it’s a large marble disk set on its edge with the age-worn image of an ancient, terrifying bearded face with long hair and horns carved into it. Its most noticeable features are the five holes set in the eyes, nostrils, and mouth of the face. Of those dark cavities, it’s the latter that has made the artifact famous and is the reason why it’s not called the Face of Truth.

The legend goes that if you stick your hand inside its ominous-looking mouth and then tell a lie, the mouth will bite it off. You know, that whole scene from Roman Holiday.

The two-millennia-old disc is pretty massive, with a diameter of almost six feet and a thickness of seven inches. It also weighs more than a ton, so you’re probably in more danger of it smashing you into two-dimensionality than having it orally amputate you, even if you’re somebody like Pinocchio or Joe Isuzu.

Experts are pretty sure that this strange stone artifact wasn’t originally designed as an amputation device, but still aren’t quite sure what it is. There’s a chance it could have been part of a fountain, but since there’s no obvious signs of water erosion, most think it was a drain cover that we tourists are sticking our hands into. Makes one wonder how future generations will interpret the cryptic messages punched into our manholes. Nice turn of phrase.

The Mouth of Truth has sat outside of Santa Maria in Cosmedin since the 1600s. You access it today by a little portico that is gated and locked during outside of its opening times. Once there, you just get in line, throw a Euro or so in a box, kick the pile of severed hands out of the way, shove your own digits into the appropriate hole, and then smile or grimace depending on the type of picture you want. We visited right when it opened, and there were about a dozen people waiting for their chance at handicapped parking tags. The line went fast, though, since the giant disc is just a photo-op and not something you’re really supposed to commune with.

After feeding the Mouth of Truth, many of the people in line just left, quickly exiting through the underwhelming church for the next stop on their itinerary. That’s a mistake, though, because just inside the door, in a less than prominent location at the side of the church, is a small glass box containing a beflowered skull that held all the thoughts of St. Valentine himself, if you believe the label affixed to its forehead.

That’s right, the skull of the guy who saved February from being dedicated to mere groundhogs and U.S. Presidents is a holy relic of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Possibly.

Apparently, there’s a lot of controversy over the existence and identity of St. Valentine, which is pretty awkward considering that his bones have been spread to various churches across the globe. Enough in fact, that were you to try to re-assemble his skeleton, you would probably end up with about half a dozen, which is awesome if you’re putting together a Halloween chorus line, not so awesome if you’re trying to tout possession of the remains of one of the most famous saints in the hood.

Apparently, there were multiple St. Valentines and thousands of years’ worth of opportunity to mislay or mislabel any of their bones. Nevertheless, if Google is the general consensus, it’s Rome that is the officially recognized place where you can stare into the eye sockets of St. Valentine. And, if one day bonologists prove otherwise, it’s still an ancient, venerated skull to gawk at. That’s one of the few things I asked out of life when I entered this world.

In the end, Santa Maria in Cosmedin is an excellent example of the Christian precept that it doesn’t matter what’s on the outside, it only matters how much cool stuff you’ve got. Stone faces to the left of you, skulls to the right. Stuck in the middle with God. Amen.