the impression some flowery
expat memoirs can give, small Italian
towns aren’t the easiest places for outsiders to
assimilate. Visiting one for a few days and trying
to live in one are two very different
propositions. Each village has its own rhythms,
unspoken rules and age-old taboos and
secrets; trying to decipher them can be like
searching for buried treasure without a map.
So it is with some anxiety that New York
writer David Farley moves to the tiny town of
30 miles north of href=”http://www.dreamofitaly.com/public/department56.cfm”>Rome.
Will the fact
that this town of a hundred is a haven for hippies,
artists and New Age types make it easier or
harder for him to assimilate? Oh and there’s
another complicating factor, David Farley has
come to Calcata to find the foreskin ( style=”font-style: italic;”>prepuce)
of Jesus Christ.
Yes, you read that right.
target=”_blank”> style=”font-style: italic;”>An
Irreverent Curiosity: In Search
of the Church’s Strangest
Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town
(Gotham Books, $25) is David
Farley’s account of his yearlong
quest to discover what
happened to Calcata’s relic — the Holy
Foreskin — which was stolen from the town
church in 1983.
From a theological standpoint, the Holy
Foreskin is the only conceivable piece of flesh
that Christ could have left on earth. For centuries,
it was prayed over in the church at
Calcata. In the 14th century, St. Bridget of
Sweden claimed to have a vision of that the
Holy Foreskin (then kept in Rome) was indeed
really a piece of Christ. Hearing of the
Foreskin’s fertility powers, King Henry V had the
foreskin present for the birth of the future King Henry VI. In 1900,
Pope Leo XIII
issued a decree stating that anyone who wrote or spoke about the Holy
Foreskin would face the threat of excommunication.
Irreverent Curiosity is
really many stories in one and Farley expertly weaves them together.
There’s of course the history of this Holy Foreskin and the
journey it has taken over the years. During the Middle Ages,
a number of towns and monasteries around Europe claimed to have a copy
of the foreskin. Farley entertainingly relays the history of Christian
relics in general. (This isn’t a book for the devout — when writing
about foreskins there’s inevitably a
good dose of snark.)
Yet, the most compelling story is that of Calcata and its eclectic
townspeople. At various times, Farley feels embraced and ostracized. He
doesn’t sugarcoat and romanticize the experience of being a
stranger here. And to be fair, he is here on a mission and everyone has
an opinion as to whether he should just mind his own business when it
comes to the foreskin. The book sheds light on human relations and
small town culture.
Italians are characters and Farley has happened upon quite a collection
in Calcata. Take for example, the Eqyptologist who lives in a
cave with her pet crows and the director who is making a film about the
foreskin starring none other than a beautiful female alien.
In the end though, more than anything
style=”font-style: italic;”>An Irreverent Curiosity
is a mystery. Does Farley find the relic? Or is his year-long search
fruitless? Who took it? Was it Satanists? The Vatican? This reader
couldn’t help but worry that the tale would end in a
disappointing way. Without giving away the ending, the conclusion
is both surprising and satisfying, following one heck of a
In addition to its fame related to the Holy Foreskin, Calcata is also
well-known as one of Italy’s best-preserved medieval
villages, set atop 450-foot cliffs. For travel information, read David
Farley’s New York Times travel piece href=”http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/travel/28dayout.html”
target=”_blank”> style=”font-style: italic;”>Day Out: Calcata Italy.
As you can imagine, the people of Calcata had definite opinions about
Farley and his work. David Farley takes a thoughtful view of his
project and the unforeseen implications in his fascinating essay on
WorldHum.com called href=”http://www.worldhum.com/features/travel-stories/on-the-perils-and-popularity-of-travel-writing-20090704/”
target=”_blank”> style=”font-style: italic;”>On the Perils of Travel