The Interview: David Farley, An Irreverent Curiosity
In the history of Christendom, there are relics, and then there is the “prepuzio,” the Holy Foreskin of Jesus Christ. It had been in safely kept in the crumbling Italian hilltown of Calcata for centuries but disappeared in December of 1983. Writer David Farley set out to investigate the mystery and the result is An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town (Penguin, 2009). In his own words, David Farley “spends his time eating, drinking, traveling and then writing about it.” Farley is the co-editor of Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic. His work appears in the travel sections of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Chicago Tribune, as well as the magazines Conde Nast Traveler, Playboy, GQ, New York WorldHum.com, Slate.com, and TheDailyBeast.com among other publications. He's also a regular contributor to The New York Times' "In Transit" blog and the founder of the Restless Legs Reading Series for travel writing in New York. He lives with his wife and their dog Abraham Lincoln in New York City.
Everett Potter: This book is really something of a detective story, about your search for the missing “prepuzio,” the Holy Foreskin, that had been kept in the tiny village of Calcata since 1527 and disappeared in the early 1980's. It's referred to as “the most blasphemic relic of all.” Of all the things in the world you might have devoted your time to write about, how did your interest in this come about?
David Farley: I was hooked the first time I heard the words "holy” and “foreskin" in succession to each other. I started doing research on the relic and found it had a fascinating, if buried, history: popping up in the Carolingian legends and during the Reformation as well as 19th-century Romanticism movement. I thought 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. Plus, I thought it would be the perfect excuse to go sniffing around the Vatican.
EP: There is an enormous amount of arcane history and documentation in your book, not just about the Holy Foreskin, but about relics in general – pieces of holy anatomy and the True Cross, in particular. These relics seem to have been the iPhone Apps of the Middle Ages, with enough pieces of the True Cross around to construct the Brooklyn Bridge. What is the Vatican’s position on most of these “relics” today?
DF: This is essentially the crux of my interest in this book: a practice, a culture, a prevalent part of society that the scientific revolution has slowly and quietly put out of existence. Relic veneration and the cult of relics still exists, but it’s largely seen (even by many Catholics) as hokey and overly superstitious and unnecessary. The Church has been mostly silent about relic veneration, letting it fade into obscurity. They don’t really like talking about it either, assuming questioner’s motivations is one of ridicule.
EP: This is a book where Nazis, Satanists and the Vatican co-habit the same pages as hashish, the occult and a never ending flow of wine. Did you go to Calcata expecting any of this or did you expect the proverbial lazy-days-in-an-Italian-hill-town type of existence?
DF: A little bit of both, actually. Calcata is such a weird, unorthodox place with so many fun and unusual characters. There’s Athon, the sculptor and Egyptologist who lives in a cave with a dozen crows; Costantino, the celebrated sculptor with a baby huey pony tail; Paul Steffen, the (sadly, recently deceased) octogenarian choregrapher; Gianni, the flamboyant B-movie actor; and Pancho, the charming but somewhat volatile chef and mosaic artist, just to name a few.
EP: You seem to have discovered a part of Italy — Calcata — that has little in common with the Italy that Frances Mayes writes about in her books on Tuscany. In fact, it’s sort an anti-Under the Tuscan Sun, a place of artists and hippies and characters like Athon, the bird lady, and the flamboyant B-movie actor, Gianni Macchia. Is Calcata an anomaly, a true paese di fricchettoni, or village of freaks, as you write, or are there other Calcata’s to be found in Italy?
DF: I had a lot of lazy days highlighted by wine and food emboldened by freshly plucked ingredients that would inspire someone like Francis Mayes to sit down and write. But it’s true: this wasn’t the Italy of Under the Tuscan Sun. It was a more subversive, more complex Italy that I encountered. I didn’t always like what I saw, but at the same time it was refreshing that I got to know the real Italy and not the overly romanticized one we’re spoon fed.
Oddly enough, there are other once-abandoned hill towns in Italy that have been revived by Bohemian types. Salemi in Sicily, Civita di Bagnoregio in northern Lazio, and Bussana Vecchia in Liguria (a few miles from San Remo) are three other examples. It’s an intriguing phenomenon that seems to be more prevalent in Italy than anywhere else.
EP: One of my favorite descriptions in the book is your observation of day tourists in Calcata, when you note that they’d “stalk up and down alleyways, trying to consume as a much of the village as possible in just a couple of hours.” Not that I should be casting stones, but that does seem to be Americans you’re describing.
DF: This goes back to our over-romanticization of Italy and Italians. Italians are not perfect travelers, just as not all Americans are culturally ignorant of the places they go to.
EP: You wrote a story for WorldHum.com about what happened in Calcata after your New York Times travel article was published about the village. So what did happen?
DF: A lot of ego bruising. Because the bohemians “saved” Calcata from eventual destruction (the government deemed it an unsafe place to live due to crumbling cliffs which is why it was abandoned in the 1960s), they are also very protective of it. So when I wrote the article for The New York Times, some of them were pretty upset. Some were angry that they were not mentioned. Some were pissed they were mentioned but not quoted. Some were angry I quoted their arch enemy. One woman was stalking me back in New York because I didn’t include her favorite Calcata artist. But when I went back for another long stint, I found something interesting was happening: American tourists, armed with the torn out article, began turning up in Calcata. After that, the Calcatese—particularly those who owned businesses there—quickly forgave me.
EP: You live in Manhattan and you have a reading series called Restless Legs. Tell us how that came about, where we can hear future readings and who we might expect to see there?
DF: Whenever a travel writer friend would come to town I’d always be the one to get other travel writer friends together so we could all meet up for drinks. So I thought it would be fun to have a few of us read. And the Restless Legs reading series was born. It takes place about every two months at a bar called Lolita on the Lower East Side and, two years on, I’m pleasantly surprised at how popular it is. At nearly every reading the room is packed to capacity. In all honesty, it’s less of a reading and more of a way to get like-minded people together—people who love writing and love travel.
EP: What are you working on now? A follow-up or something completely different?
DF: I’m trying to track down all the drops of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk that was worshiped throughout the Middle Ages. Just kidding. I have a few book ideas but nothing too concrete at the moment. So I’m just writing food and travel articles for magazine and newspapers for now. But who knows? Maybe one of those assignments will take me to the next Calcata.
Visit David Farley.com for more on An Irreverent Curiosity.