Arte-Factual: The Mouth of Truth

Tomb Raider Chronicles was possibly my least favourite game of the Tomb Raider series. It may have had fewer glitches and better controls than its ill-received successor Angel of Darkness but it offered little new in terms of game-play aside from a couple of new moves. 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 in the world and I had the opportunity to re-visit some of its  monuments and archaeological sites during a short trip to Italy in November 2013. One of the attractions I didn’t have the chance to see a second time was the famous “Mouth of Truth”.

The “Bocca della Verità” has been on display in the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin since the 1630s. I first cast my eyes on the Mouth of Truth during a family visit to Rome in 1997, so when I came across a similar sculpture in Tomb Raider Chronicles a few years later, it brought back 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 popular legend says that it would bite off the fingers (or hand) of anyone who told a lie while their hand was placed inside 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 flocks of pesky bats to deal with.

The legend surrounding the Mouth of Truth is thought to have originated in the Middle Ages but the sculpture itself may date back to the 1st century BC and could actually be even older. The sculpture depicts a horned, bearded man with a gaping mouth and was carved out of Pavonazzetto (Phrygian) marble, which had been quarried in modern-day Turkey. Some believe that this is the face of Oceanus, the horned and bearded Titan associated with the world’s seas and rivers. But it’s equally likely that it depicts 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 in the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Mouth’s association with water doesn’t end there. While scholars still do not know 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, though the sheer weight of the stone would have made this somewhat impractical.

It’s entirely 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 sadly 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 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. It has also appeared 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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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a translator, editor, writer, and gamer with a passion for archaeology, foreign languages, cultural heritage, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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One Comment on “Arte-Factual: The Mouth of Truth”

  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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