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‘An Irreverent Curiosity’ – An Interview with David Farley

An Irreverent Curiosity by David FarleyIf you know me, you’ll know that I am nuts about religious relics. And if you know David Farley’s book “An Irreverent Curiosity,” you’ll know immediately why that first line is a wee bit funny.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Farley in Manhattan to discuss his book, which has the tag line “In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.” What is the church’s strangest relic? I’ll tell you: it’s the Holy Foreskin of Jesus, also known as the “Santissimo Prepuzio” (Holy Prepuce) or the “Carne Vera Sacra” (Real Holy Flesh). Indeed, there is – or was – a relic that came from the body of Jesus Christ; the foreskin was the only possible piece of flesh that the Messiah could have left behind. How the church came to rediscover then later lose this most holy of relics – and how Farley came to live in the small, medieval hill town (now eclectic artist enclave) of Calcata to search for it – is the subject of his highly entertaining book which is out in paperback today from Amazon.com.

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Italofile: How Did You First Learn About Calcata?

David Farley: Back when my wife Jessie and I were living in Rome for a few months, we would follow the suggestions of Time Out Roma (magazine) which had a small English language section at the time. One weekend, there was a small article about a day trip to Calcata, a town that sounded just strange enough that we wanted to visit.

Italofile: Did You Know About the Holy Foreskin Before You Visited?

David Farley: The Holy Foreskin was mentioned as a side note in the article. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that [this unusual relic] would make for an interesting book topic.

Italofile: The Holy Foreskin is the main subject of your book and a fascinating topic. But the hill town of Calcata, population 100 (!), is the other star of “An Irreverent Curiosity.” What Made You Decide to Relocate to Calcata?

David Farley Calcata

David Farley, author of "An Irreverent Curiosity," with Calcata in the background

David Farley: It was actually my wife’s idea. When we had visited a few years before on a day trip from Rome, we had enjoyed the weird Bohemian vibe of Calcata. Here was this medieval hill town full of artists from all over Italy and the world, with some people walking around in saris and Indian headdress. So it seemed like a bizarre place to spend more time in. Then, my wife reminded me of the relic, how it had been stolen. The book idea just fell into place.

Italofile: The Holy Foreskin is such a weird relic. Doesn’t it seem weird that this part of Christ was saved? And, in doing your research, did you come across other relics that were equally odd?

David Farley: The Holy Prepuce [another word for foreskin] had come up in relic research before. Saint Catherine [of Siena], the self-proclaimed “bride of Christ,” was known to have worn the foreskin around her ring finger. Other weird relics mentioned in the book include the Holy Umbilical Cord, Holy Bib (a “two-for-one relic…complete with breast milk stains from the Virgin”) and the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.

Italofile: How Did You Come Up With the Title “An Irreverent Curiosity?” I’ve heard there were some more irreverent working titles of the book before you settled on the current one.

David Farley: My editor at Penguin/Gotham Books came up with a title that he was quite enthusiastic about, but I couldn’t exactly share in his excitement. I had wanted to call it “Holy Foreskin” because a title like that would most certainly get someone’s attention. But he convinced me that no one wants to be reading a book on an airplane or the subway with the word “foreskin” scrawled across the cover. So I gave him three other titles: “An Irreverent Curiosity,” because when someone asked why the pope had banned the speaking of or writing about the Holy Foreskin in the year 1900, a Church spokesman said they feared such a relic could cause “an irreverent curiosity.” The other titles were Godforsaken, which I feared sounded too much like a D&D/fantasy book, but I liked that both the relic and the village of Calcata had become godforsaken (and when you think about it, it kind of sounded like “god’s foreskin”). And the last suggested title was “The Messiah Flap,” which no one seemed to fully appreciate except for me.

Italofile: Forgetting the book and its success, would you move back to Calcata again if you had the chance? Why or why not?

David Farley: Yes and no. For me, ideal was a few months when I was living during the week in the apartment of my friend Paul Steffen, around the corner from the Trevi Fountain and then spending the weekends in an apartment I was renting in Calcata. It was the best of both worlds.

Italofile: What advice would you give travelers who wish to visit Calcata?

David Farley: Go on the weekend, when the village is at its liveliest. The artists who live in Calcata have admirably managed to inverse the work week: They work two days a week—during the weekend—and then have five days to do what they want.

Italofile: Are you working on any other Italy- or relic-related books?

David Farley: It’s not easy topping the Holy Foreskin, so I’ll probably let someone else conquer, say, the breast milk of the Virgin Mary.

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Thanks, David! It was a pleasure getting to know more about you and your book.

An Irreverent Curiosity is available in paperback from Amazon.com.

Visiting the Vatican and Rome During Easter


Springtime is a very popular time to visit Rome and the Vatican City. And for good reason. The weather is warmer. The gardens and parks are in bloom, with huge pots of azaleas providing a burst of color on the Spanish Steps. And for the thousands of churches, it is time to celebrate Easter.

Of course, the most popular place to visit during Easter is St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro). The Pope presides over several services at the basilica during Holy Week, including morning and evening masses on Holy Thursday, an afternoon vigil on Good Friday, and an evening mass on Holy Saturday. The big event, Easter Sunday mass, is celebrated in St. Peter’s Square, where thousands gather to watch the Pope bless an icon of the risen Christ and hear the Pope’s “Urbi et Orbi” message delivered from the balcony of the papal apartments.

The Pope also travels to other churches in Rome during Easter time to perform holy rites. On Maundy Thursday, the Pope typically delivers the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at St. John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano), the church for the Bishop of Rome – the Pope’s other official title. After St. Peter’s, this is the second-most important basilica in Rome and worth a visit even if you aren’t in town during Easter. (Also in this area is the Scala Santa, purported to be the “holy stairs” that led to the throne of Pontius Pilate. Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, brought these stairs to Rome from Jerusalem in 326 A.D. and Christians have been venerating them ever since.)

The Stations of the Cross Vigil in the Colosseum

Click here if you are unable to see the video above.

Another intriguing site to visit during Easter is the Colosseum, where the Stations of the Cross are held during an evening vigil on Good Friday. The Pope presides over this rite in the arena where many ancient Christians are said to have been “thrown to the lions.” The Colosseum was consecrated as a church in 1749 to commemorate these early persecutions of Christians and stem the pillaging of the structure’s building materials.

Note that seating at the Colosseum on Good Friday and in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday is very limited. Free tickets for these events must be reserved well in advance with your local diocese.

Leading up to Holy Week, there are several other opportunities to see and/or hear a blessing from the Pope, including on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is also the the typical day on which World Youth Day, a celebration initiated by Pope John Paul II, is held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope also delivers a blessing to general audiences each Wednesday throughout the year. For more information about applying to participate in a general audience with the Pope, review this information from the Prefecture of the Papal Household.

For more ideas on visiting holy Rome, have a look at the links below. You may also visit the official website of the Vatican for information on the Pope, the Holy See, and liturgical services.

Papal Basilicas of Rome
Santa Maria Maggiore
San Giovanni in Laterano
San Paolo Fuori Le Mura

Additional links of interest
Getting Into the Vatican Museums
Italy’s Most Unusual Religious Relics
Angels and Demons Tourism

Photo © WiltshireYan

Italy’s Most Unusual Religious Relics

Examining the ampoule of San Gennaro's blood

Examining the ampoule of San Gennaro's blood

No matter if you’re a devout Catholic or a curious non-believer, you should make a point to check out a few of Italy’s many religious relics. More than 2,000 years of Christianity has produced numerous fascinating, if not gruesome, stories. And it seems that for every Biblical tale, there is a relic housed in Rome, the Vatican, or in one of Italy’s thousands of churches. Here are a few unusual relics that you can put on your next Italy itinerary.

The Shroud of Turin
Shroud of Turin Exhibition Poster This is perhaps Italy’s most famous relic, housed in the Cathedral of Turin (Duomo di Torino) in the Piemonte region. The Shroud is a linen cloth that bears “the image of a man who appears to have been physically hurt in a manner consistent with crucifixion,” according to Wikipedia. In short, the image on the Shroud bears a striking resemblance to the collectively agreed upon image of Jesus Christ and is thought to be Christ’s burial shroud – thus, the relic’s significance among Christians.

As with all religious relics, the Shroud’s authenticity has been doubted. Even the Catholic Church has yet to formally endorse the Shroud. And a recent scientific study confirms the shroud as a relic of the Middle Ages (i.e., NOT 2,000 years old). Nevertheless, this sacred relic (called Santa Sindone in Italian) is well-protected by the Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud.

Because of the Shroud’s delicate nature, it is not always on display. However, in 2010, Turin will host an exhibition for the Shroud. From April 10 to May 23, 2010, the Shroud of Turin will be on exhibit for thousands of visiting pilgrims. As of this writing, online tickets have yet to go on sale. So check back with the Torino Tourism website for more information.

The Blood of San Gennaro
It’s hardly surprising that a hot-blooded place like Naples would have a relic made of blood (see main photo above). Each year, the city of Naples awaits the liquefaction of the blood of Saint Januarius (San Gennaro), which is stored in an ampoule in a reliquary in the Naples Cathedral. An early saint of the church, having been beheaded during Emperor Diocletian’s anti-Christian raids in the 4th century, San Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples. The liquefying of his blood, which can happen up to 18 times per year, is thought to signify a miracle and helps protect Naples from calamities, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Michelle Fabio explains more about the Feast of San Gennaro for Italy Magazine. She has also posted a link to the video of the Procession of San Gennaro, which you can watch below:

The Holy Foreskin (Currently Missing)
David Farley’s book An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town was one of the inspirations for this post. In his book, Farley writes about the town of Calcata, located in the region of Lazio (Rome’s region), where the Holy Foreskin – yes, the skin from Jesus Christ’s circumcised penis – was kept for centuries until its disappearance in 1983. Farley has devoted himself to this subject, so you’d do well to read his book to learn about the relic and Calcata, which is known as a “village of freaks.” But here’s an interesting tidbit: apparently Saint Catherine of Siena wore the Holy Foreskin as a ring. Now that’s some devotion.

Mary’s Holy Belt
Mary's Holy Belt in PratoThe Virgin Mary didn’t leave behind a piece of her body for future Christians to revere. But she did leave behind a belt. The story goes that Mary gave this sacred accessory to Apostle Thomas as she ascended to heaven. The Prato Cathedral acquired the relic in the 14C and has kept it in a precious silver reliquary ever since. In fact, a special chapel was built to house the relic and the church also commissioned artists Michelozzo and Donatello to build an exterior pulpit, from which the relic is ceremoniously displayed to crowds below.

Unlike the Shroud of Turin, the Sacra Cintola is made of a more durable material – green wool – so the church readily displays it five times a year: Christmas, Easter, May 1, August 15, and September 8. Prato is located in Tuscany, just north of Florence, so it is hardly off the beaten track should you wish to visit.

Relics in Rome
Being the center of the Christian universe, Rome has, perhaps, the most holy relics per square mile of any other city in Italy. And here you will find some wonderfully odd ones, including Saint John’s severed head in the church of San Silvestro in Capite (also the National Church of Great Britain in Rome); the “doubting finger” of Saint Thomas (in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme); papal innards in the church of SS. Vincenzo e Anastasio near the Trevi Fountain; the Santo Bambino in Santa Maria Aracoeli; and “evidence” of souls trapped in purgatory at the Museo delle Anime del Purgatorio (nicely explained by Jessica at WhyGo Italy).

I’m sure I’ve missed a ton of unusual relics in Italy. So, what’s your favorite?

Photos (top to bottom): sangennarofeast.org,Torino Turismo, Gwilbor.

Easter 2009

Are you looking for information about Holy Week in Rome and the Vatican? Here’s a calendar snippet taken from vatican.va. If you want to find out about Easter celebrations in the rest of Italy, head over to our Tourism Boards page and click on your desired location. Most bureaus will have information posted.

APRIL

5 Palm Sunday and Passion of the Lord
Saint Peter’s Square, at 9.30
Blessing of the Palms,
Procession and Holy Mass

9 Holy Thursday
Vatican Basilica, at 9.30
Chrismal Mass

Basilica of Saint John Lateran, at 17.30
CAPPELLA PAPALE
Beginning of the Paschal Triduum
Mass of the Lord’s Supper

10 Good Friday
Vatican Basilica, at 17.00
CAPPELLA PAPALE
Celebration of the Lord’s Passion

Colosseum, at 21.15
Way of the Cross

11 Holy Saturday
Vatican Basilica, at 21.00
CAPPELLA PAPALE
Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

12 Easter Sunday
Saint Peter’s Square, at 10.30
Holy Mass of the Day

Central Loggia of the Vatican Basilica, at 12.00
“Urbi et Orbi” Message and Blessing

26 – 3rd Easter Sunday
St. Peter’s Square, at 10.00
Canonization of Blesseds:
-Arcangelo Tadini
-Bernardo Tolome
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Nuno de Santa Maria Álvares Pereira
Geltrude Comensoli
– Caterina Volpicelli

The Pope’s Online

You no longer have to go to Rome to have an audience with the Pope. Now, with the new Vatican YouTube channel, the Benedict XVI will come to you. According to Reuters, the daily videos will be about two minutes long and will feature info about church events and the Pope’s activities. Hopefully, the site will include more than just Pope Benedict talking. It’d be neat to see a Vatican tour around Easter and Christmas – I always love to see how St. Peter’s is decked out for the holidays.

Initially, the briefings will be broadcast in English, Spanish, German, and Italian. For more info about the Vatican, you can go to www.vatican.va, where you can also find links to the Vatican’s live radio feed.

Visiting Rome During Halloween

Halloween in Rome Italy

Scene from a tomb in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Though I’ve always seen Rome as a city for lovers, I can’t deny that it has a certain morbid quality about it, what with all the church tombs, catacombs, and gladiator lore that are a part of its urban fabric. That’s what makes visiting Rome around Halloween a good bet – it’s like an instant haunted house!

Budget Travel pointed out so much in its article from a few years ago – The Eternal–Or Infernal?–City. Writer Barbie Nadeau lists some really great ideas for spooky places to visit in the city, including the Catacombs of San Callisto (though I prefer the Catacombs of St. Domitilla), the Protestant Cemetery (recently profiled here), and the excellent Crypt of the Capuchin Monks (in Santa Maria della Concezione, Via Veneto), which is a chapel built entirely of human bones.

Nadeau’s suggestions cover most of the bases, but I still have a few more scary sites to add to the list. So, if you find yourself in Rome over Halloween or just like visiting eerie places, add these to your list, too:

Mamertine Prison. This ancient prison at the Capitoline Hill-end of the Forum Romanum was built around the 4th C. BC and said to have been where Saints Peter and Paul were incarcerated before their executions. Because of this association, Mamertine has long been a Christian shrine. But other war criminal were also kept in the prison until they were publicly executed. There’s a tablet by the entrance that lists how some prisoners met their fate, quite a few of which were beheaded.

San Silvestro in Capite. Speaking of beheadings, this church is said to house the reliquary of the severed head of John the Baptist. The head – or perhaps the death mask – is on display in the church. It’s not particularly scary, but the thought of a 2,000 year-old-head in a glass box creeps me out.

Santa Maria del Popolo. An inconspicuous door off of the usually crowded Piazza del Popolo leads into the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which houses a handful of some great free art, including works by Caravaggio and Pinturricchio. What’s spooky in this church is 17th C. tomb of Polish architect G.B. Gisleni. The tomb is topped with a life-like skeleton in a shroud. There are also various decorative skull and bones motifs throughout the church.

Museum of Purgatory. Located in the Chiesa del Sacra Cuore (Sacred Heart Church) on the left bank of the Tiber, the Museum of Purgatory contains “evidence” of souls that have been caught between earth and the afterlife. Jessica at Italylogue had a really good post on the Purgatory Museum a while back, so I’ll let her “lead the tour.”

Vatican Necropolis. I Scavi, or the excavations/necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica, seem like an obvious scare-inducer to me. Though, I suppose Catholics would argue that this space is more sacred than spooky. Nevertheless, if you like cold, dark places filled with tombs, you may want to tack this on to your obligatory St. Peter’s and Vatican tour. Be aware, however, that you have to make a reservation to visit the necropolis.

The above are a few of my favorites, but there are certainly more. If you have any you’d like to add to this list, please drop me a line. Happy Halloween!

Photo by Nic Nac

A Peaceful Oasis in Rome


After reading a post about Free Things to Do in Rome from fellow blogger Jessica at Italylogue.com, I couldn’t resist commenting on one of my favorite places – free or not – in all of the Eternal City: the Protestant Cemetery. Then I thought I should also share this tip with Italofile readers, too.

The Protestant Cemetery, also known as the Non-Catholic Cemetery, is located behind the grand Pyramid or, in Italian, Piramide, itself a burial site for Roman magistrate Gaius Cestius who died around 12BC. Surrounded by tall trees, which miraculously drown out the din of Roman traffic just beyond the Pyramid, the well-kept cemetery is the final resting place of a few names from literature, notably John Keats (whose unmarked epitaph famously reads “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”) and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who died in a boating accident off the coast of Tuscany, but who wrote parts of Prometheus Unbound while living in Rome. Many expats and non-Catholic Italians have been laid to rest at the Protestant Cemetery and you can find lists of others buried there (ordered by name, nationality, etc.) by checking out these databases.

Indeed, it may seem a little morbid to spend time at a cemetery while in Rome. At the very least, it may seem odd to go out of one’s way to visit one of Rome’s least-visited (and certainly little known) sites. But, the Protestant Cemetery is just one of the many free things you can do in the Eternal City and is a great place to recharge your batteries after hours of dodging traffic and long lines.

Photo from the Protestant Cemetery website

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