An Irreverent Curiosity: The Search for the Savior’s Foreskin
In Travel writer David Farley’s new book, An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town he takes the reader along on his quest to locate the Holy Foreskin, one of the Catholic Church’s more infamous relics that mysteriously went missing in 1983.
With almost blasphemous humor and wit, Farley sorts through all the history, legend, and town gossip from the small hilltop hamlet of Calcata. Called the city of freaks by the rest of Italy, the colorful townspeople of Calcata make a strange story even stranger, but in the best possible way.
Here are some selections:
A Piece of God
Calcata is not easy to get to. From Rome’s Flaminio/Piazza del Popolo metro stop, you jump on a light rail for about twenty minutes before getting to the Saxa Rubra bus station. Buy your bus tickets (be sure to get a round trip) and then wait for a big blue bus to arrive at platform number two. In the meantime, try to avoid the salty regulars who park themselves on a bench near the snack bar, nursing large Peroni beer bottles and trying not to fall over.
The bus to Calcata goes north up the Via Cassia, one of the most important of the ancient Roman roads. Two thousand years ago it was trafficked with wagons and military officers on horseback moving between Rome and Florence. Today, the Cassia-the new Cassia, that is-swarms with buzzing Vespas and Fiat-driving manias who rocket up the highway like they were on a high-speed police chase.
The bus turns off at Sette Vene and then twists and turns through a patchwork of low-rolling, villa-topped hills and olive tree groves. It then passes through the village of Mazzano Romano before descending into a valley, which today makes up part of a regional park called Valle del Treja.
Calcata sits almost halfway between the Cassia and another ancient Roman road turned modern-day thoroughfare, the Via Flaminia; because of this, Calcata was largely inaccessible until about midway through the last century, when roads were finally paved to the village. As the bus winds its way through the verdant forest and back up a hill, you come around the bend and there it is: Calcata, an ancient hill town, a medieval island, magically suspended in the air.
In French writer Roger Peyrefitte’s 1955 novel, The Keys of St. Peter, the protagonist comes to Calcata on a pilgrimage to venerate the Holy Foreskin. When he’s approaching the town, he says, “There are places predestined for certain relics.” Take your first glimpse of Calcata, and you’ll understand.
The village, which sits like a cupcake on a high perch, surrounded by almost 360 degrees of 450-foot cliff, is made from tufo, soft volcanic rock, the same type of stone on which it sits, giving the impression that the buildings had just sprouted from the living rock.
From above, you can see the half-football-field-size village is liver-shaped. But from the approach on the only paved road, Calcata’s precarious position atop the rock appears to have been guided by a divine hand, its church campanile and rook-like tower of its diminutive castle pointing heavenward while the dense but ramshackle cluster of tan two-story houses crowns the edge of the cliffs, cementing a long and uncertain relationship between nature and civilization.
I rarely remember my dreams, but on this particular morning I woke up and Bruce Willis was fresh in my mind. Mr. Willis was being chased by four or five tinted-windowed black sedans through a gray, apocalyptic landscape where mattresses were on fire and turned-over jeeps were smoldering. Willis made a sudden left and leapt over a brick wall, then leaned against it, catching his breath. But just then, the black cars skidded to a stop in front of him. A black-suit-wearing man with slicked-back hair, aviator sunglasses, and an earpiece opened the door and crouched behind it.
He yelled over to Willis, “Give it back to us and we’ll spare your life.”
“No,” Bruce Willis screamed in response “you’ll never get it as long as I’m alive!”
And with that, the men opened fire. With each bullet that pelted Bruce Willis, the action star was thrown up against the brick wall. His gun dropped on the ground, and with the little energy he had left, he pulled from his pocket a small silver box, held it above his head, then collapsed with a thump to the concrete, the silver box skidding across the pavement, jarring open, as he took his final breath. There, in the middle of the palm-sized container, was a wrinkled-up piece of flesh. The Holy Foreskin.
When I suddenly awoke I wasn’t so surprised I was having dreams about the relic-it had been on my mind since the day I stepped foot in Calcata. What really shocked me, however, was the following week: As I was sitting on the piazza, I noticed a few people on the other side filming something. More important, they were peppering their conversation with prepuzio. I had to find out what was going on.
It turned out Dario (or Bacco, as everyone called him, thanks in part to his wine-drinking habits) was making a movie about none other than the Holy Foreskin. I’d never seen Bacco around, but I introduced myself and within a few minutes we were at the Grotta, beers in front of us, talking about why he’d decided to make a movie about the relic.
“My friends and I were just sitting around one day trying to think of a good movie topic and someone suggested the prepuzio,” Dario said in near perfect English. “There’s so much mystery surrounding its disappearance I thought it would be perfect.”
“So, the movie is a documentary about the disappearance of the relic?”
“No, it’s more like a mockumentary-a movie meant to look like a documentary, but it’s really not.”
Bacco then explained the plot to me, which used real-life Calcatesi. The overly complicated story revolved around a guy named Hemingway, a local guy who actually died halfway through the shooting of the movie. They’d continued filming anyway, not changing the plot much, but just shooting around Hemingway’s absence. “Calcata is really the protagonist,” Bacco said.
There was also an alien-in the form of a pretty forty-year-old woman- who had come to earth find the Holy Foreskin. She claimed that since the moment the relic had gone astray from Calcata, the earth had been out of whack; that both Calcata’s energy and the energy of the Holy Foreskin had basically kept the seams of the planet in place and now that they’d become unstitched, Armageddon could be afoot.
Bacco finished off his beer at the Grotta and said he had to get back to filming. But before he left, he invited me to play a part in the movie. The very next weekend, I found myself in the Porta Segreta gallery, owned by Giancarlo Croce. All the established artists of Calcata were there- Athon, Romano Vitali, Constantino, Giancarlo, and a few others- to film a scene in which the alien stumbles upon a party of Calcata’s famed artists. Which was easy enough, since the presence of wine and cigarettes and food made it seem like we really were having a party.
Everyone was in a festive m ood except for Giancarlo, who was treating the gallery space like it was his brand-new Ferrari, putting cups on coasters or napkins, sweeping up crumbs, and practically diving to the ground, cupped hands in front of him, to catch falling ash from a cigarette.
In the 1970s and 1980s, this space had been the scene of frequent parties and, from what I’d heard, much debauchery. But now it was unlocked only when Giancarlo felt like showing it off. Which was a shame, considering it housed Giancarlo’s striking paintings and etchings of Calcata as well as a few sculptures that Constantino had made.
“Okay, everybody in their places,” Bacco screamed. No one really moved since we were already in place, sitting around the room smoking and drinking and eating. “And… action!”
The sexy alien, a woman I’d never seen before, clad in an elegant gown, strolled through the door and feigned surprise when she saw us sitting there. “Are you the famed artists of Calcata?” she asked, as the camera panned around the room.
Everyone nodded and mumbled in agreement, and then, one by one, we began to introduce ourselves and say a little about Calcata. My line- “Me chiamo David Farley e sono un scrittore di New York”- didn’t strain my Italian very much and I nailed it in one take.
“It is true,” the alien asked, “that the Holy Foreskin was here?” And if so, what’s its connection to Calcata?”
“Sì,” Constantino said, volunteering to recite the story about how the relic arrived in Calcata.
Then the camera swung toward me, my mug smack in the center of the frame. Bacco nodded at me, having just fed me a second (and final) line, but I couldn’t spit it out. Finally, I said it. “The moment I arrived, I could immediately feel a very particular energy.”
And suddenly, everyone was talking about an energy in Calcata. Athon gave a long soliloquy about Calcata being a spring of energy that’s released from the center of the earth. Constantino jumped in, disagreeing with some point Athon was making. This wasn’t in the script, but Bacco kept filming anyway.
At the same time, the most intoxicated person there, a woman from the parking lot who was apparently in attendance just to watch, knocked over her glass of wine during an inexplicable fit of laughter. Giancarlo looked like he was about to lose it. Athon and Constantino’s voices grew louder. Suddenly Patrizia emerged from outside and jumped into the argument as well. Finally, after about ten minutes, Bacco intervened, to get the shooting back to the script. Filming resumed.
“What do you think makes the energy so particular?” the alien asked, and following the script, Romano then launched into a dream he’d had about the pope being a fish.
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