On the Bocca della Verità and Giovanni Battista de Rossi
I was 19 years old when I first stuck my hand in the Bocca della Verità – the Mouth of Truth – and, though I'm not a superstitious person, you still have to wonder about a legend that has been recounted for centuries, how if a dishonest person sticks his hand in there it will be chomped off. I try to be honest – I really do – but moving my shaking hand towards that grimacing gob my mind raced back to when I told Molly Simpson I couldn't attend her birthday party because I had the flu, when I was really going to a Cub's game at Wrigley Field; and when I told my father that I didn't feel well so couldn't go to school when I really just wanted to stay home and watch Mary Tyler Moore reruns on the telly and eat ice cream. Surely the Mouth of Truth didn't count these things as dishonesty, did it? I'm not a superstitious person, but I was slightly nervous nonetheless, placing my hand in that mouth just like Gregory Peck did whilst being watched by a big-eyed and gorgeous Audrey Hepburn. Nothing happened, thank God; the Mouth of Truth didn't seem to be too concerned about little white lies.
I walked away, much relieved to still have an intact hand, and a small, old priest – skin like parchment and ears with so much hair they looked like twin forests – said in thickly accented English, “You survived la Bocca della Verita' – you are a truthful person!” and I nodded and smiled. “But what is truth?” he asked me, small black eyes looking at me accusingly. I was aware that it was the same exact question that Pilate asked Christ. Jesus remained silent, so I did too, but I added a shrug of the shoulders that I'm sure Jesus didn't.
“Come with me,” he said and grabbed my hand before I had time to make an excuse like I did for Molly Simpson's birthday party. We went into the church – hardly anyone ever goes into that church, they just thrust their mitts into the mouth on the porch and leave – and we sat down in front of the altar. He proceeded to tell me of one Saint Giovanni Battista de Rossi who had sat where we sat, had prayed where he wanted to now pray with me. Did I know him? he asked. No, there are loads of Italian saints, I answered, I don't know them all. He seemed to ignore my insolence.
“He was a man of truth,” he said to me.
“Truth: what does that mean?” I cheekily asked like the old priest had, like old Pontius Pilate himself had.
“Boh,” he said, the Roman way of saying “I don't know,” and I have to say I was surprised at his answer, had expected something a little more pious. “But," he continued, "you know it when you see it.” And he proceeded to tell me of this Giovanni Battista de Rossi who had spent so much time where we were sitting, and who – when not kneeling there – helped the people whom no one else would help: the poor, the outcast, the infectious. On and on he spoke about the man, who in very simple ways seemed to exhibit on the outside what he professed to feel on the inside. “That's the truth,” he finished, and I was unsure if he meant the stories he had just recounted or some deep, existential reality. Probably both.
He pressed a holy card in my hand, told me to be a person of truth, and gave me his blessing. I walked out into the Roman sunshine, past the tourists who were taking their chances at the Mouth of Truth, and into the teeming streets of the city. Would all those people know the truth when they saw it? I wasn't sure. But something deep in my heart – the heart above which was pressed in my shirt pocket an image of one Giovanni Battista de Rossi – told me that that they might have a better chance of knowing the truth if they somehow managed to see it in me, through my actions.
Truth, what does that mean? Boh. You know it when you see it, I guess. At the end of the day I just hope that others can see it in me and I in them.
And that's the truth.