Outside Basilica Santa Maria in Cosmedin is the enormous marble mask called Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth) where, in the film Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck teased Audrey Hepburn by pretending to have his hand bitten off by the ancient lie detector. Inside the church is the skull of Saint Valentine (well maybe it’s his skull). It’s a perfect place to take a date—you can show her/him that you’re not a liar and visit the head of a saint with a day symbolizing love the world over. You will know you are in the right place by the tall medieval bell tower of the basilica and the line of people out front waiting to take a picture.
Saint Valentine Story
We think of February 14 as a day of romance—the day for lovers to show each other how much they care, but the holiday has its origin in the Roman festival of Lupercalia. From what I’ve gathered from various sources, the days of Lupercalia (mid-February) were marked with fertility rituals, feasting, and other rites celebrating coupling. The Catholic Church under Pope Gelasius I (5th century) sought to undermine the pagan holiday so he combined it with St. Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure this served the desired effect of taming the celebration though. The history gets muddier as throughout the centuries the holiday transformed. Writers romanticized it in their works and the day gained renown as one for lovers. Eventually the holiday became marked by commercialization making it so that to really “show one’s love” gifts of cards, flowers, candy, jewels, and other goodies should be given. Feasting and mating are still a hallmark though.
Who is St. Valentine? He is the patron saint of lovers, epileptics, and beekeepers. Which Saint Valentine the day is named after is not clear. It seems there may have been two. In the 3rd century CE around the same time, the Romans executed one or two men named Valentine. The Catholic Church honored this martyrdom by making February 14 a day to remember St. Valentine.
St. Valentine’s Skull—it is unknown whose skull is actually on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It could be the head of the one or two martyrs named Valentine whom the day is named after (who were in Rome at the right time). It could be another Saint Valentine—there are 10 currently listed in the Roman Catholic register. But whomever it is, the skull is labeled “Valentine” on its forehead so obviously the church wants us to believe it is the martyred saint. It is also decorated with flowers and has a very “Valentine’s Day” feeling about it…if skulls on display in glass cases can conjure up feelings of romance and love. As any traveler who has spent time in churches in Italy knows, there are bones and skulls and bone fragments and all manner of saints’ relics of saints lying around. Disturbingly, fingers of saints are scattered about and skulls are frequently separated from their bodies. Scholars dispute the provenance of the skull on display so we can’t emphatically state that the head there is that of the Saint Valentine (or any St. Valentine) of romantic fame, but I’m going to just believe it is true for the sake of a good story.
Even if St. Valentine’s skull doesn’t draw you in, I suggest you visit the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Located near Aventine Hill and by the Tiber River, near temples, and the spot of an ancient market, this church was started around 600 AD and has been added to and expanded throughout the years in the late 8th century, the 9th century, and again in the 12th century when the Romanesque bell tower was added. The Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verita) is on the porch—you can pay to gain access and then line up for your chance to take the ubiquitous “hand in mouth” picture. I like just staring through the gate at the ancient Roman artifact after the picture taking is done for the day when the crowds have gone home. The interior of the medieval church has interesting elements; it feels far more austere than many of the Catholic churches in Rome which are elaborately painted and decorated. Beneath the altar is an 8th century crypt built by Pope Hadrian I, which you can visit and adds another neat historical element to this multifaceted church.
After you leave Basilica Santa Maria in Cosmedin, I recommend exploring the Forum Boarium area across the street (former cattle market) where you can see the Fountain of the Tritons, the Temple of Hercules Victor (great condition), and the Temple of Portunus. Go down via di Santa Maria in Cosmedin and then cross the church to climb Aventine Hill and encounter a lovely Roman neighborhood with well-heeled residents, schools, beautiful gardens, and the famed Knights of Malta keyhole where one can peek through a keyhole to see through to the dome of St. Peter’s in Vatican City. Aventine Hill is a beautiful area to meander.
One reason I love Rome is that in the span of an hour, one can see a skull of a storied saint, descend into a crypt, take a photo op with an ancient lie detector, visit temples from the 3rd & 2nd BC, and peer through a keyhole to see three sovereign area (Malta, Vatican City, and Italy of course). If you’re quick, you could probably even grab a gelato to eat. Rome has so much to offer so I hope you and your valentine can visit it some day!
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