Arte-Factual: The Mouth of Truth (Tomb Raider Chronicles)

Tomb Raider Chronicles was possibly my least favourite game of the Tomb Raider series. Sure, it had fewer glitches and better controls than its ill-received successor Angel of Darkness but it offered nothing new in terms of game-play aside from a couple of new moves and its short, episodic nature made it feel more like an expansion pack than a standalone game. Having said that, Chronicles did have one major redeeming factor: the fact that three of its levels were set in Rome.

Rome is one of my favourite cities and I had the opportunity to re-visit some of its many monuments and archaeological sites during a short trip to Italy in November 2013. One of the attractions I sadly did not have the chance to visit this time around was the famous “Mouth of Truth”, or “Bocca della Verità, which has been on display in the portico of the basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin since the 1630s. I first cast eyes on the real Mouth of Truth during a family visit to Rome in 1997 so when I came across a similar sculpture while playing Tomb Raider Chronicles a few years later, it brought back a lot of fond memories of my two-week holiday in Italy.

The Mouth of Truth as seen in Tomb Raider Chronicles
The Mouth of Truth as seen in Tomb Raider Chronicles (Image credit: Kelly M)

The Mouth of Truth is so named because according to popular legend, it would bite off the fingers (or hand) of anyone who told a lie while their hand was placed in the mouth (think of it as an ancient lie detector). Thankfully for the hundreds of tourists who pose with their hands in the mouth each day, there are no verified reports of any hands or fingers being bitten off.

In the level “Streets of Rome”, Lara had to stick her hand into the sculpture’s open mouth in order to open gates and access other parts of the level. Luckily for her, she survived the ordeal with her fingers intact and only had the occasional flock of pesky bats to deal with.

Although the legend surrounding the Mouth of Truth is thought to have originated in the Middle Ages, the sculpture itself is thought to date back to at least the 1st century BC. The Mouth was carved out of Pavonazzetto (or Phrygian) marble, which was quarried in modern-day Turkey, and depicts a horned, bearded man with a gaping mouth. The sculpture may be a depiction of Oceanus, the horned and bearded Titan associated with the world’s seas and rivers, though some believe it may have depicted the ancient god of the river Tiber.

The Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verità) in the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome
The Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verità) in the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But the Mouth’s association with water doesn’t end there. While scholars have yet to determine where the sculpture was initially discovered or why it had been carved in the first place, many are convinced that the Mouth may have been an ancient drain cover or part of a Roman wall fountain. Others posit that the sculpture may have served as a cover for a sacred well but at 1,200 kilos, its weight would make this somewhat impractical. However, it’s possible that we may never know why the Mouth was carved. There are no verifiable mentions of its existence in historical documents before the late 15th century and we don’t know where the sculpture was excavated so its archaeological context has been lost to the ages.

While the Mouth of Truth may raise more questions than we can answer, one thing is for sure: it has captured the attention and imagination of scholars, tourists, film-makers and game developers alike. The Mouth has appeared in several Hollywood films, including the 1953 film Roman Holiday (which made the Mouth famous worldwide) and the 1994 romantic comedy Only You, and in a number of video games, including Mega Man Battle Network 4, Animal Crossing and, of course, Tomb Raider Chronicles.

If you’d like to learn more about the Mouth of Truth, you can find plenty of useful information on Rita Benini and Massimo Portolani’s webpage Bocca della Verità: Facts, History and Legends.

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One thought on “Arte-Factual: The Mouth of Truth (Tomb Raider Chronicles)

  1. Wow, I can’t believe I never even spotted that. I’m vaguely aware of the mouth of truth, and I always thought that thing in Chronicles was odd, but I just thought it was an especially random type of switch, like Core was just being eccentric like that.

    I love the Mouth of Truth, there’s something really captivating about being near it, just the fact that it’s interactable and the expression on the mans face is so ambiguous yet powerful.


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