Why you Should Visit the Mouth of Truth and the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin

The weird but wonderful Mouth of Truth has been perplexing Romans since the Middle Ages.

mouth of truth stoneworkThe fascinating face of the Mouth of Truth has been a tourist must-see for years, but why?

If you’re looking for everything you need to know about this iconic tourist attraction (and its nearby church!), I’ve got you covered.

Everything you need to know about the Mouth of Truth

Although it might not look like much at first glance, the Mouth of Truth is the stuff of myths and legends. 

This sculpture is perched outside the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the Forum Boarium area.

But if you’re wondering what lies behind that bizarre marble mask, then you’ll want to stick with me.

santa maria cosmedin exteriorLocated in the porch of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church, the Mouth of Truth is easily visited when in Rome

I’ve seen the Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verità in Italian) countless times, and I’ll run you through everything from its opening hours to its fascinating backstory.

While you’re here, I’ll also fill you in on the gorgeous Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and why it’s worth checking out.

Now let’s do this thing!

Here we'll be diving into:

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What is the Mouth of Truth?

The Mouth of Truth is a world-famous marble mask that’s tucked away in the portico of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin Church. 

The sculpture itself is believed to date back to the 1st century CE, but it may have been around as early as the 4th century BCE!

The mask is huge and is characterized by a bearded male face with distinctive holes for the eyes, mouth and nose. 

mouth of truth side viewPictures do not do the size of the ancient stonework justice!

It has an impressive diameter of 1.75 meters, weighs a whopping 1300 kilograms, and is typically cordoned off by a short rope.

It was originally located in the ancient cattle market of Piazza della Bocca della Verità.

However, it was moved to its current location in 1632 where it has stayed ever since.

The Mouth of Truth myth

The Mouth of Truth isn’t just an unnerving old sculpture.

There’s also a fascinating myth attached to it! 

Back in the day, it was believed that liars (or if you told a lie while your hand was inside it) who placed their hands inside the Mouth of Truth would get a hand bitten off.

Although many Romans supposedly got the chop back in the day, a woman accused of adultery managed to circumvent the Mouth by “fainting” in front of the sculpture. 

She arranged to be caught by the man she was having an affair with before heading to the Mouth of Truth to face its final judgement.

When she admitted that she’d been touched by only two men in her lifetime (her husband and the “stranger”!), the Mouth of Truth acknowledged this as fact and set her free.

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The Origins of the Mouth of Truth

Now, there’s no proof that the Mouth of Truth actually bit off any hands of its own accord.

However, it was back in the Middle Ages that this myth first came about. 

Medieval Romans saw the sculpture as an effective lie detector that could solve everything from petty crime to perjury.

If you’re wondering why, it was because the poet Virgilio Grammatico stated that husbands and wives should be able to find out the truth from the stone.

mouth of truth side viewThe open mouth is only just large enough to put a hand in, but this was plenty for it to 'make a judgement'

During lengthy trials, anyone accused of these crimes would swear their honesty at the Piazza della Bocca della Verità.

They’d then place their hand inside into the dreaded Mouth of Truth.

If they were honest, they’d go free.

But if they’d committed the crimes they were accused of, the terrifying sculpture would “bite” or lop their hand off.

Modern research into the sculpture states that it’s more likely there was an executioner holding a sharp sword behind the marble mask. 

Whatever you believe, it’s certainly a fun aspect of Roman culture to think about!

Ancient Roman origins

As briefly touched on earlier, the Mouth of Truth dates back to ancient Roman times and its original purpose wasn’t to weed out liars. 

It’s tricky to pinpoint the exact first use of this sculpture, but it is thought to have been either a sewer outlet, a ceremonial well cover, or an impluvium outlet (essentially a water collection system). 

temple hercules victorThe temple of Hercules Victor is across the road from the Mouth of Truth and may have been the source of it

It’s also possible that the mouth was used as a manhole cover for the ancient Temple of Hercules Victor.

This is highly likely as the average drain cover in Ancient Rome was often carved with the faces of deities.

We can’t say for certain, but historians believe that the Mouth of Truth strongly resembles the sea god Oceanus.

No matter when you visit Rome, there are five things you should always bring:

A hat

If you're visiting Rome in the fall, you'll be happy to have a rain hat with you.

Comfortable shoes

Even if it's a bit warm in the beginning of fall, I'd suggest close-toed shoes. Even better if they are waterproof, just in case.

No matter what, they must be comfortable for all the walking you will do.

A scarf

Romans wear scarves year-round.

In autumn, you will be glad you have a scarf for chilly days and evenings.

I suggest a wool scarf for warmth.

A backpack

A pickpocket-proof backpack is the ideal way to sight-see.

It leaves your hands free for picture-taking, holding onto rails, and riding a bike or scooter if you decide to rent one.

Travel/trip insurance

I know this is not a thing to pack per se, but it's such an important part of travel these days.

If you think you are already covered by your credit card's insurance, you should double check the fine print. It's not likely to cover what you really need when travelling.

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The Mouth of Truth in Roman Holiday

You might recognize the infamous Mouth of Truth from the famous flick Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn.

In this iconic story, Audrey Hepburn plays a runaway princess who’s visiting Rome.

Gregory Peck stars alongside her as a reporter who takes the princess on a speedy trip around the Eternal City’s finest sights, allowing her to escape her royal duties.

mouth of truth frontThe popularity of the Mouth of Truth owes a lot to the iconic film Roman Holiday

When they arrive at the church, both characters put their hand into the Bocca della Verita.

While nothing happens to Hepburn, Peck’s character pretends that his hand has been chopped off by the gaping mouth!

Although it’s never been officially confirmed, it’s said that the moment was entirely improvised by Gregory Peck, making Hepburn’s reaction legitimate!

What about the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church?

While the Mouth of Truth might be the main event in this area, you don’t want to miss out on seeing the church.

santa maria cosmedin interiorThe church interior is well worth seeing

Named after the Greek word for ornate, the church certainly lives up to its name!

Many tourists simply head to the Mouth of Truth and call it a day. 

But you honestly need to see the decorative marble disks and medieval architecture that make up this striking church.

The history of Santa Maria in Cosmedin

This beautiful basilica was originally built in the 6th century for the Greek community.

As the population expanded, it was added to in the 8th and 11th centuries. 

The church itself instantly stands out in the ancient Forum Boarium area which dates back to the Republican era, and that’s thanks to the glorious, Romanesque bell tower. 

The tower was built during the 12th century and is truly a sight to behold.

santa maria cosmedin and tower viewThere is much more to see in this area of Rome than just the Mouth of Truth

What to see inside

The main church area is decorated with incredible Cosmatesque flooring.

santa maria cosmedin flooringMake sure to look down as you walk inside the church and admire the intricate flooring

But you’ll also spot the ancient columns and arches that make up the church’s restored medieval façade.

If you look closely, you’ll also see a fragment of the Adoration of Magi from the Old St Peter’s Basilica that Constantine I built between 318 and 322.

As you walk around, you’ll spot the skull of Saint Valentine tucked inside a glass reliquary.

It’s usually surrounded by flowers and there’s a small plaque that identifies the bones inside the glass.

santa maria cosmedin st valentine chapelThe small skull of Saint Valentine is always surrounded by flowers and candles

Although it’s tricky to see, there’s also an impressive crypt tucked underneath the church that was built to house ancient relics from the Roman catacombs.

You’ll spot the stairway entrances for the crypt on either side of the central altar.

santa maria cosmedin underground areaThe underground crypt gives you a sense of how old the foundations of the church truly are

The perfect 3-day itinerary in Rome

Trying to figure out how to organize your visit to Rome? I've got the perfect 3-day itinerary for first-time visitors (or those who have not been here in a while.) It works for a 2.5 day visit as well.

In my 3-day itinerary, you'll see all the major must-see Rome attractions like the Vatican, Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, Castel Sant'Angelo, and much more.

And if you have more time, or want suggestions for extra/other things to do, you'll find that there too.

Visit my page with the best 3-day itinerary in Rome for first-timers.

How to visit

If you’re planning to visit Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the opening hours are from 9:30AM to 6PM during peak season.

In winter, the church closes an hour earlier at 5PM. 

It’s usually open every day and the church only takes around 30 minutes to cover in its entirety.

mouth of truth queue in winterThis queue is common, but is only for the Mouth of Truth, not to go inside the church

The long queue at the front of the church is for the Mouth of Truth so just walk straight past it if you’re not planning to get a photo!

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How to visit the Bocca della Verità

The Mouth of Truth has the same opening hours as the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church (9:30AM-6PM in the summertime, last entry at 5:50PM).

If you’re visiting during the winter months, the last entry is at 4:50PM.

If you want to avoid the crowds, I highly recommend visiting first thing in the morning or later in the day just before closing.

In the early to mid-afternoon, the area is packed!

santa maria cosmedin queueThere is very little shade and you don't want to be queuing for long in the hot sun, so try to time your visit for early in the day

Although the church charges €2 to get up close to the mouth, you can see it from outside for free.

Depending on whether or not you’re looking for a classic photo with your hands inside the sculpture, this might be enough for you! 

Don’t worry though, the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is entirely free to visit.

santa maria cosmedin and tower outer viewThe Mouth of Truth and church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is easily reached from any of Rome's main sights

The nearest metro station is Circo Massimo (which is on Line B).

From the station, it’s about 900 meters to the Bocca della Verità.

If you’d rather take the bus, get off at Bocca della Verità and take the 44, 84, 140, 95 or 81 lines.

If you’re heading over from other major sites in Central Rome, you’ll be very close to the Capitoline Museums, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum.

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