An Irreverent Curiosity: Exploring History and Place in Italy
We're happy to be celebrating an extraordinary new book, An Irreverent Curiosity, by travel writer David Farley. David's writing appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Conde Nast Traveler, Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, National Geographic Adventure, Slate.com, and WorldHum.com, among many other publications. As well, he teaches travel writing at New York University. The co-editor of Travelers’ Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories, An Irreverent Curiosity is his second book, and focuses on his quest to trace the Holy Foreskin of Jesus.
An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town is a gem of a book, combining the classic quest tale with a twist. An Irreverent Curiosity is the real deal for eclectic readers, combining history (Italy, relics, the Catholic Church), a great sense of Place, and a character study of the highest order - all told with a fantastic sense of humor. This story of a personal journey, both interculturally and as a quest for a holy relic, is extremely compelling reading. Farley disembarked from a bus in Calcata, Italy in 2006, and shares his experiences with us, both great and small. Whether it is a meal (and there seem to be so many good ones) and discussions with friends, finding his way into the Vatican Library, or his continual quest for information on the prepuzio, the reader is drawn into Farley's world.
Farley writes so evocatively of place that readers feel as if they experiencing life in Italy with him. Calcata, a small hilltop village 45 minutes north of Rome, is a medieval treasure, filled with a seeming abundance of interesting people. Pancho, Omar, Elena, Patrizia, Athon, Paul Steffen, Giancarlo Croce, Costantino Morosin, Don Dario, Angela and Gianni Macchia (and crows and dogs) - all of these names become familiar to us as we read ths book, as if we ourselves have befriended them. However, writing of place also has its pitfalls. In an article for WorldHum, Farley shares the Perils of Travel Writing. We travelers - and travel writers - may never know the impact of our work and travels on people and place (unless our work is published in the New York Times, as Farley's was!).
Filled with great energy (and an interesting story of energy), knowledge, and humor, this book is a treasure. I devoured it over 24 hours, with the assistance of several espressos, and the help of my husband (meals, watching our daughter), I disappeared into the hammock until it was done. I LOVED IT. I learned so much of Calcata, Catholic history, holy relics, magic, energy, and of the author's intercultural journey. For me, this book was such a strong tale of place and people and adjusting to a new culture that I can't stop recommending it to everyone I know. And yes, I do know the looks I get when I talk about a book about the relic that is Jesus' Foreskin.
We were lucky enough to sit down and talk with David Farley about An Irreverent Curiosity, conducting research in another country, the relic, and more. Here's what he had to say...
WE: Great title! Can you please share what is an “Irreverent Curiosity”?
DF: From a theological standpoint, the Holy Foreskin is the only conceivable piece of flesh Christ could have left on earth. For centuries it was prayed over in the church in Calcata, a medieval hill town near Rome. 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. The Church later reasoned that such a relic could cause “an irreverent curiosity.”
WE: When did your interest in holy relics start?
DF: The rule of having to place a relic under the altar of a Catholic church, first instituted at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, ended in the 1960s. Therefore a lot of Americans, even practicing Catholics, are sometimes taken a back during their first trips to Europe when they catch a glimpse of a bone or skin fragment or, in some cases, an entire body, on display in a church. I was no different. And I was immediately fascinated with the practice of relic veneration, I think, because we’ve moved so far away from it in such a short period of time. In essence, things like relic veneration underscore one of my chief interests in history and the modern world: that slowly vanishing world, quietly wiped out of existence by the scientific revolution.
WE: What motivated you to write this book?
DF: The Holy Foreskin is an intriguing and hitherto lost footnote to history. I was really driven to figure out how the Holy Foreskin went from being one of the most a sought after and popular relics in the Middle Ages to being nearly unknown (and forbidden by the Church) in the 20th and 21st centuries. I also wanted to put the relic into a historical context. Plus it was nice to (finally) be able to put that master’s degree in history to good use.
WE: Where and how did you research the book?
DF: I did a lot of face-to-face interviews, particularly with the villagers in Calcata, where I lived for about a year. I also managed to talk my way into the Vatican Library and found some centuries-old documents there. Much to my surprise, the New York Public Library has a large cache of old documents on the relic as well. I found a lot of surprising references to the relic in historic documents.
WE: Such as...?
DF: Several popes granted indulgences to those who came to pray in front of the pious prepuce. Saints pined for it: St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century Doctor of the Church and self-proclaimed spiritual bride of Christ, said she wore the foreskin around her ring finger. That same century, St. Bridget of Sweden claimed to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary who told her that the Holy Foreskin (then kept in Rome) was the real deal. Church reformers Jan Hus, Jean Calvin, and Erasmus criticized the cult of the Holy Foreskin. Having heard of the Holy Foreskin’s fertility and child-rearing miracles, King Henry V of England had the relic brought to him from France to help birth the future King Henry VI.
WE: Were there cultural barriers that affected your research?
DF: There weren’t any explicit barriers, but when I was doing all the footwork for my book—trying to wrangle interviews, trying to get myself into the Vatican, for example—there may have been a more “Italian” way of going about it that may or may not have been better.
WE: Please tell us about your time in Italy - what did you learn from living there for an extended period of time?
DF: I’d lived abroad before—for a few years in Prague and for a few months in Paris—so I had already become accustomed to having to adjust to a different set of cultural norms and practices. Spending a significant amount of time in a small village in Italy and being able to get to know many of the people there was great. Italy has captured the hearts and imagination of millions and it was refreshing for me to spend enough time there to be able to see beyond the romanticization of Italy.
WE: You befriended so many interesting people in Calcata - will you go back to live there?
DF: I made a lot of great friends there. If they don’t hate the book, I’d love to go back.
WE: Back to the Holy Foreskin...so the relic was in France at one time?
DF: Yes and no. The Holy Foreskin proved to be too popular for its own good, as a dozen or so towns and monasteries around Europe—though mostly in France for some reason—claimed to have a copy in the Middle Ages. The relic in Rome, which found its way to Calcata in the 16th century, was the only papal approved version.
WE: What has happened in the last century with the relic?
DF: Despite the 1900 papal decree, the relic remained in Calcata, where it was shown only one day a year—on New Year’s Day, which had been the Feast Day of the Holy Circumcision until it was removed from the church calendar after the Vatican II reforms in the 1960s. In 1983, however, the relic disappeared under rather mysterious circumstances.
WE: and...so who took the Holy Foreskin and where is it today?
DF: There were many theories: Satanists nabbed it or neo-Nazis stole it, and even the Vatican itself was a potential culprit. Some villagers insist the priest sold it for a heavenly sum. After enough footwork and research, I did find out what happened to the relic, but you’ll have to read the book to find out.
WE: Thanks so much, Farley! I am so impressed with your book - both with the painstaking historical research, and the exquisite care you took in portraying Calcata.
For more information, please see:
On the East coast? Farley's got some upcoming readings this month:
Barnes & Noble
8th St. & Sixth Ave.,
New York City
Restless Legs Reading Series
New York City
Want to see more of Calcata?
Please click here to see a video of Calcata, from Discover Soriano.
All photos courtesy and copyright of David Farley.