Truth is the safest lie

La Bocca della Verità (“Mouth of Truth”) is a marble image of a face, located in the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Legend tells that if someone lies while placing his or her hand in its mouth, the Bocca will bite it off.

In the 14th century the legend of the Bocca was made into a popular story supposedly illustrating the “duplicity of women”. A woman accused of adultery has to undergo the test in front of her husband and a judge. She persuades her lover to come with her disguised as a fool and at the crucial moment he playfully embraces her. She can then swear that no man apart from her husband and the fool has ever touched her. It sounds like – but isn’t – one of the many tales in The Decameron, compiled around this time (and appropriately) by Giovanni Boccaccio.

Roman-HolidayLa Bocca della Verità became famous, not least for its appearance in the film Roman Holiday (1953) starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Few people realise that the scene was done in one take. Unbeknown to Hepburn, Gregory Peck contrived to conceal his hand in his sleeve while taking it out of the Mouth. Hepburn’s shocked reaction was spontaneous and exactly what the film director was looking for.

In 2012, a lecturer in art history at St Andrews University, Scotland, dated the Mouth of Truth to the reign of Emperor Hadrian, who ruled Rome between AD 117 and AD 138. It turns out it is an ancient drain cover and that the face depicted on it is that of the Roman god Oceanus.

Cranach“La Bocca della Verità” is also the name of a major work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted around 1526. In Cranach’s depiction, the jealous husband is portrayed in sharp profile on the right and the judge in his ermine-trimmed robe on the left. The accused wife is placing her hand inside the mouth of a lion sculpture to prove she is telling the truth, while her lover, disguised as a fool, has his hands around her waist.

Cranach’s oil on beech wood panel was owned by Carl-Hans Graf von Hardenberg – one of the conspirators in the Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Many of the meetings of the conspirators took place at the family mansion, not far from Berlin. Hardenberg was arrested and nearly lost his life in a concentration camp. The painting remained in the family until the death of his daughter Astrid Gräfin von Hardenberg in February 2015 and it was recently sold by Sotheby’s for over $14.4 million, nearly doubling the artist’s previous record.

Lucas Cranach the Elder was court painter to the electors of Saxony in Wittenberg, a region in the heart of the emerging Protestant faith. His patrons were powerful supporters of Martin Luther and Cranach used his art to promote the tenets of the new faith. Cranach also made several portraits of Luther and provided woodcut illustrations for his German translation of the Bible.

Several of Lucas Cranach’s works from the same period deal with moral failings. “The Ill-Matched Couple” (1532) depicts two of the seven deadly sins: the lust of an old man and the greed of a young woman. It’s possible that “La Bocca della Verità” is in the same vein, referring to the “lying tongue” found in Proverbs (6:17) and serving as a warning to tread the strait and narrow.

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