Book Review: An Irreverent Curiosity

An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town

By David Farley

Published July 9, 2009

Gotham Books

304 pp.

ISBN 1-592-40454-5

Reviewed March 24, 2010

Before picking up “An Irreverent Curiosity,” the only time I ever heard the foreskin of Jesus Christ mentioned was as a plot point in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel “Choke.” In the novel (and subsequent film), the main character Victor Mancini is faced with the looming death of his mother and decides he needs to learn more about his past, and as such has his mother’s doctor translate her Italian diary. The findings are stunning and sacrilegious: apparently at forty she offered to undergo a “miracle” fertility treatment, and was implanted with one of six embryos created by utilizing the foreskin’s genetic material.

Described as a religious relic stolen from a shoebox under a priest’s bed in Northern Italy, the history provided is fairly brief. “According to the Catholic Church, Jesus was reunited with the foreskin at his resurrection and ascension. According to the story of Saint Theresa of Avila, when Jesus appeared to her and took her as his bride, he used the foreskin as her wedding ring.”

Given Palahniuk’s tendency of exaggeration for effect (which I have personally witnessed drive patrons out of his readings to the joy of fans) I assumed this was a flight of fancy on his part, some offhand myth stretched to the nth degree. This made it all the more surprising to learn that the relic actually existed, actually was stolen, and to this day actually remains a legitimate mystery. In “An Irreverent Curiosity,” David Farley decided to see if he could find out the truth behind its disappearance – a journey full of as many characters and complications as the relic’s history.

Farley centers his search in Calcata, a small town in Italy where the relic took up residence from 1527 until 1983, at which point the above-mentioned shoebox vanished from under the nose of the local priest. Tracking down every conceivable lead he can find, he discovers more than a few roadblocks: the local residents aren’t interested in talking about it, so-called experts have only speculation or conspiracy theories and the church may still excommunicate people for even talking about it. As such, he has to try every source he can, moving from the Vatican library to village priests to Paris abbeys to wine cellars.

With travel writing credentials including the Washington Post and the New York Times, Farley certainly has an eye for the interesting details of a new environment – and this is an environment worth exploring, as Calcata would be an eccentricity even if it wasn’t for the foreskin. An isolated location, home to one of the last mostly untouched medieval villages in Italy, it is often viewed as a source of indefinable energy by residents – an energy that attracts artists, wanderers and those looking for somewhere out of the ordinary to live.

“People are not meant to live a normal kind of life here,” says a resident named Athon, who has a PhD in architecture and lives in a cave with crows – and she’s only mid-level eccentricity. Farley got to know a lot of these people while he was doing his research, and he dwells on them in detail: dancers, architects, chefs and drifters all join him in some form in his quest. The village is painted in a very positive light, certainly a quirkiness that would take some getting used to but a real sense of community once you and the town learn to get along.

Farley’s search also allows him to indulge his inner history buff, providing a very detailed look at the history of Christianity’s fascination with relics and the Church’s ambiguous relationship with the Holy Foreskin. He goes all the way back to ancient Rome and the Christians raiding ashes of burned saints, touching on the Constantine-inspired craze to own them and Calvin and Luther’s dismissal of the concept causing their star to fade. These obscure details are a fascinating read, with amusing tangents on how saints were the precursor to modern rock stars and how a boat could be built with all the wood claimed to be part of the True Cross.

If there’s a problem with “An Irreverent Curiosity,” it’s that these two sections – along with other Farley’s occasional personal anecdotes – never quite mesh together. Farley has written several articles about his time in Calcata in addition to the book, and he’s clearly more comfortable in the shorter format of a few hundred or thousand words. As a consequence, several details feel out of place or transitions somewhat strained, the tone frequently jumping from historian to conversationalist.

This certainly doesn’t mean it’s written poorly – it’s interesting and more than occasionally funny – but it does lack something in its engagement quality. In a book where the author is dropping themselves into a foreign land on some sort of quest, there needs to be either a deeper personal connection to journey (i.e. “The Ramen King and I”) or describe the setting in developed prosaic tones (i.e. “Honorable Bandit”). Farley doesn’t quite hit either, and when he tries to bring in more of his personal experiences – such as one chapter where he discusses his apparent learning disabilities in childhood and compares it to difficulty with Italian – there’s a definite sense of edges that need smoothing over.

But while “An Irreverent Curiosity” may feel rocky in places, it never feels like more than the bumps during an interesting journey. It’s a book loaded with quirky characters and esoteric facts, useful for preparing for a northern Italy trip or writing a paper on some aspect of Christian history. Farley may not be able to turn up the relic, but with all the oddities that surround him, it’s yet another proof what matters is the journey over the destination.

Extra Credit:

For a taste of Farley’s writing on the subject, check out these articles from Slate that cover many of the better discussions from “An Irreverent Curiosity.”

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