Monday 10 August 2015

Mouths of Truth - Michelle Lovric

It is so hot in Venice that the cats are melting.

The usual silly season stories abound in the city's press. But one story caught my eye this week, seeming more profound: the Gazzettino newspaper reported on the opening of a new ‘Sportello Antiabusivi’ in September.

This translates as a counter for denouncing people who are working ‘in nero’ – for cash that is not declared in any tax return. The state position is that this is about greed, basically: taking without giving. Officials point out that those who work in nero accept Italy's excellent free education and hospitals, policing and other services. But they choose not to contribute. Of course this position ignores the plight of those who are trapped without citizenship and paperwork, who are themselves exploited by employers.

Venice’s local government estimates that there are 20,000 living in nero in the city. Their number includes plumbers, hairdressers, and taxi drivers.

Spuntano come funghi’ says one official. ‘They are springing up like mushrooms.’

 But now it is promised that these tax dodgers will be ‘in mirino’ – in the mire.

A ‘sportello’ is hardly a romantic object. Nevertheless, it was strange to me that none of the Venetian newspapers drew any comparisons with a very similar institution in Venice’s past – the Bocche di Leone, the Lions' Mouths.

Several of these stone reliefs were placed around the city. Through the aperture of the lions’ jaws, citizens were encouraged to post denunciations of those who were committing frauds or crimes, who swore, or who posed a threat to public health – always a great issue in Venice whose capillaries of narrow streets efficiently transmitted any kind of disease, notably the great plague of 1575, which may have carried off a third of her citizens.

While these sculpted holes in the wall were called 'Lions’ Mouths', in fact they were not always in a recognisably leonine form. The allusion to the lion is thought to connect the righteous practice of outing wrong-doers with the city’s symbol – the lion of San Marco. Certainly the faces have the ferocity of lion, discouraging any idle or mischievous approach.

The magistrates of the city held the keys to the post-boxes behind the lion mouths. The denunciations inside would be investigated by the Savi (the Wise Men), the Inquisitors and the Council of Ten.

Anonymous denunciation were not taken seriously. Only if the salvation of the city was at stake would such letters be accepted, and then only by a majority vote by the officers. From 1387, the Council of Ten ordered the burning of letters without the signature of the accuser and without credible evidence. From 1542 onwards the denunciations would be accepted only if three eye-witnesses were also cited.

Otherwise, of course, anonymity might have masked those who were jealous or malicious. Letters that were anonymous or unsupported by proper evidence were simply burnt.

This one is inside the Palazzo Ducale. The text explains it is for secret denunciations against those who practice or collude in corruption in hiding real income. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

This one is on the Zattere in Dorsoduro, by the old church of Santa Maria della Visitazione.

It is for anyone who wants to denounce health crimes. In fact, these days one can get behind the wall that hosts this mouth. When I did, I was rather hoping to find a basket full of current denunciations (sexually transmitted diseases, emotional abuse, drug peddling?) but there’s nothing there – not even the basket. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

There’s nothing left of the special task for this lion’s mouth on the wall of the church of San Martino in Castello. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

Why lions? It seems that lion mouths were our first lie detectors.

Here you see one working in a painting called The Mouth of Truth by Lucas Cranach the Elder, or his workshop. (Painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

A woman accused of infidelity swears that she is chaste. She puts her hand in the mouth of the lion who refrains who biting it off because she has told the truth. Except in this case, she has actually fooled the lion, apparently.

The mouth lie detector can also be seen in a stone mask in of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, – the Bocca della Verità– which according to legend bites off the hand of every liar.

You may know this lion from the 1953 film Roman Holiday in which Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck play characters with things to hide. She flinches from putting her hand in; he makes a terrifying prank of it. There’s a clip here.

Frankly, I think it would be a grand idea to reinstate the idea of a fearsome test for emotional and financial liars, the greedy types with both hands in the honeypots of money and love. Something to scare the hands off them! It’s a good start that we can soon walk up to a sportello in Venice and denounce those who cheat on their taxes.

But what about the heart-cheats and the callous people who mistreat those who love them? Shouldn’t they be denounced too?

That public official in Venice, describing the need for the Sportello Antiabusivi, describes the cheating as ‘a wound that spreads a stain everywhere’.

We’ve all known people who inflicted those.

I wrote about one such, a certain Minguillo Fasan, in my novel, The Book of Human Skin. Doctor Santo observes, ‘There are people who are a disease, and it is purely our indulgence that makes a plague out of them.’

So should we cease in our indulgence of unmitigated villainy?

Public denunciation will be a good start. The internet has plenty of virtual denunciations but I see a need for something tangible, something which must be approached righteously, in a physical sense. A wall with photographs of philanderers? A column of infamy on which names could be carved? A tree hung with poems of heartbreak, naming names? Even a public counter in Trafalgar Square, manned by someone fierce as a lion?

Or does anyone have a better idea?

Michelle Lovric's website


Joan Lennon said...

Ah, that scene from Roman Holiday - I still jump every time!

I like the poem idea, but to be efficient as a shaming device, the people targeted would need to be capable of FEELING shame, and so many of those heart-breaking types just aren't. Might make the heart-broken feel better though.

Sue Purkiss said...

Brilliant clip! Not sure about reintroducing the idea though - could lead to blood on the streets!

Mary Hoffman said...

Same with the "tamburo" or letterbox in Florence, where someone left an anonymous denunciation of Leonardo for sodomising Jacopo Saltarelli, a young male prostitute. Such accusations had to be signed, though they could be secret, so it was dismissed but Leonardo left Florence anyway.

Sodomy was an offence punishable by death if proved but this hardly ever happened.

I think I don't favour anonymous accusations, in real life, on the Internet, or in "lion's mouths." Anonymity shelters trolls, which is why you can't comment anonymously on History Girls' posts any more.

Leslie Wilson said...

I agree about anonymity, but the Venetian authorities apparently did, too..My grandfather spent a year in a hellish camp for war criminals after the war, as the result of an anonymous denunciation, and in the end it came out that there was no evidence against him.
Of course some love-cheats might actually be proud of being denounced in this way, it could become a badge of achievement for them? Hard to get Don Giovanni pinned down, till the Commendatore's statue crushed him.
I love that scene from Roman the film, actually, and most of the divine Audrey's films.

Patrice Lawrence said...

Lovely to read this... from a hotel bed near Arsenale with a copy of The Undrained Child by my side!

Patrice Lawrence said...

Aggh!!! Ruddy autocorrect! 'Undrowned '!

Patrice Lawrence said...

Aggh!!! Ruddy autocorrect! 'Undrowned '!