Alexander Basek talks with the author of a recently released book about Italy and one of the strangest holy relics you could ever dream up.
“This year, the holy relic will not be exposed to the devotion of the faithful. It has vanished. Sacrilegious thieves have taken it from my home.” Thus begins Faster Times contributor David Farley’s travel memoir/narrative history, An Irreverent Curiosity, centered around a dramatic — some would say kooky, others sacrilege — case of relic theft. Why all the fuss? It was no beatified bone, but rather the foreskin of the baby Jesus. Preserved in the bohemian Italian hill town of Calcata for centuries, it vanished under mysterious circumstances in 1983. Villagers posited many conflicting theories on the relic’s disappearance, from a pilfering priest to the Vatican itself. (It’s Italy-so, of course the conspiracy theories lead back to the Vatican) Published by Penguin/Gotham Books, the book has received a lot of attention since its release earlier this summer. Alexander Basek sat down with David Farley to talk about one of Italy’s most unusual towns and its curious relic.
AB: Calcata seems like an odd choice when it comes to picking up stakes and moving to an Italian village. How did you choose it?
DF: I was living in Rome in 2002 and heard about this bewitching medieval hill town inhabited by aging hippies and artists. So, as one does in Rome, I took a day trip there and was fascinated by the place.
AB: How did it transition from rustic retreat to hippie mecca?
DF: The government decided in the 1930s that the village was in danger of slipping off the rock, so the plan was to build a new town nearby. But it wasn’t until the late ’60s when Calcata Nuova-New Calcata-was finished. Hippies and artists, perhaps taking refuge from the global calamity that was 1968, took notice of this incredible place and moved in. Today there are about 100 full-time residents and some of them pretty successful artists. All of them talk about a particular energy that oozes from the rock Calcata sits on.
AB: I take it that the energy attracts some interesting characters…
DF: One of my favorites is Athon, an Egyptologist and sculptor who lives in a cave with a dozen crows. Then there’s Paul Steffen, an 88-year-old American who was once a famous choreographer in Italy and managed to befriend some of the 20th century’s greatest artists and thinkers-from Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau to Henry Miller and Federico Fellini. And then there’s Pancho Garrison, an American mosaic artist who runs a great restaurant called Grotta dei Germogli.
AB: What was the genesis of the title?
DF: In the Middle Ages there were at least a dozen towns-most of which were in France for some reason-that claimed to posses the foreskin of Jesus. Rome, of course, had one too. All the foreskins disappeared during the anti-Catholic fury of the Reformation and, later, the French Revolution. Except for the one in Rome, which would later wind up in Calcata. The Church’s theological dilemma was over. Or at least they thought so. In the 19th century, a few of those French towns suddenly “rediscovered” their Holy Foreskins and the Church, once again, had a problem on its hands. So, in the year 1900 Pope Leo XIII made a decree, banning the speaking or writing about Holy Foreskin. The penalty: excommunication. When asked about the matter, a spokesperson for the Church said the Holy Foreskin could inspire “an irreverent curiosity.”
AB: Have you been excommunicated yet? In the book, the town’s priest dodges your questions, citing that same decree.
DF: Not that I know of. Maybe I’ll find out when I die and end up in the fiery pits of hell.
AB: So you didn’t write this book to get into heaven. What moved you to write it?
DF: The first time I heard the words “holy” and “foreskin” in succession to each other I was hooked. And then I started doing research on the relic and found that it loomed about the periphery of so many historical epochs and movements-from the Carolingian legends to the Reformation to 19th-century Romanticism. I thought-and this will reveal the history geek that I am-how it would be intriguing to put the relic and the cult of relics into a historical context so that readers would understand why relic veneration has been such a strong facet of people’s lives.
AB: And where does one begin to research Jesus’ foreskin?
DF: I started at New York University where I teach. But once in Italy, I did a lot of research at the Vatican Library, which was very cool. I still can’t believe they let me in. I’m sure they’re regretting it now.
AB: Have people been skeptical of the “truth” of the relic at readings?
DF: There are always expressions of bewilderment, people aghast and rhetorically shouting out: who would keep a foreskin?! My answer to that is the Virgin Mary, realizing there was something innately special about a child from a virgin birth. In actuality, though, the relic in question was probably a medieval fake, some ordinary and unfortunate soul’s foreskin.
AB: It’s a strange claim to fame, for sure.
DF: But what fascinated me was that people believed it was the real flesh of Christ–the only piece of flesh he could have theologically left on earth-and they treated it as such.
AB: The reviews have been good, but one critic called it “raunchy.” Do you think that’s true? Though “irreverent” is in the title, I didn’t find it anti-religious.
DF: I would agree with you on that. Despite the obvious opportunities for humor, there are no cheap shots against Christianity or Catholicism in the book. This is real history. A buried history that, until know, few people knew about.
AB: So What’s next for David Farley, foreskin hunter?
DF: Hopefully it won’t have anything to do with foreskins. Actually, I’m just writing for magazines and newspapers until the next book project comes about, which may never happen: the Holy Foreskin is a hard act to follow.
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