Interview with David Farley: ‘An Irreverent Curiosity’

Travel Interviews: The World Hum contributor's new book illuminates a bizarre mystery in an Italian village. Jim Benning learns more.

07.09.09 | 10:30 AM ET

World Hum readers know David Farley’s stories are engaging (On the Perils of Travel Writing), evocative (The Pasta Nazi) and frequently downright funny (How to Write a Bad Travel Story).

Now, he just may have written his oddest and most intriguing story of all: the tale of his journey to a small Italian village to discover why Jesus’s foreskin—a holy relic that had reportedly been safeguarded in the village for centuries—disappeared. The book is called An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town, and it comes out today to rave reviews.

I asked Farley about the book via email.

World Hum: What prompted you to write this book?

David Farley: The Holy Foreskin. Two words I never thought I’d see in succession to each other. I loved stumbling upon this bizarre and buried footnote to history. Once I started doing research on the relic—primarily at the Vatican Library and the New York Public Library—I began unearthing centuries-old documents detailing the history of this miraculous membrane. It was fascinating to find out that several popes had granted indulgences to pilgrims who came to venerate it, that saints had pined for it, that Martin Luther and Jean Calvin had specifically raged against the veneration of it, and that writers like Stendhal and James Joyce had written about it.

What kind of book did you set out to write? A travel book? A history book? A mystery? All of the above?

I’ll go with D) All of the above. Ultimately I just wanted to tell a good story. After visiting Calcata and being fascinated with how the village has evolved into a center for artists, aging hippies and bohemian types, I knew I wanted to write something about it. I just wasn’t sure what the story was yet. Then I stumbled upon the Holy Foreskin and since I had studied the saints and medieval history in college, I was hooked. I really did have, in the words of the Church (when asked why they banned the speaking about the Holy Foreskin), an irreverent curiosity. The difficult part in writing the book was finding a narrative balance between writing about my time in Calcata, the history of the village, my search for the relic, and the history of the relic.

In the photo of you we published here, you have just the slightest hint of a smile. It’s interesting. It’s almost as though you know something we don’t. Do you?

I know where the Holy Foreskin is and you don’t.

I knew it! On another note, living in an Italian village and researching a book there sounds romantic. Is it as romantic as it sounds?

Yes. No. Well, it depends. I loved the fact that I couldn’t pass through the intimate marble-bench-lined square in Calcata without being waved over by some local and chatting for a minute or two. I loved that I could walk into a restaurant and the owner and waiters and half of the diners would know me. That Italy we read about in travel books and magazines really does exist. But being there longer allowed me to see a more realistic side of the country, too. Everything, for example, is politicized—and often to much further extremes of right and left than is usually the case in the United States. Your politics might shape where you shop, what neighborhood you live in and even where you eat. It was also fascinating to get a better sense of the deep-seated tribalism that exists in Italy.

You write about how awed you were by Europe’s history and grand cathedrals when you traveled there for the first time at 20. Are you still awed in the same way?

I am. I was just in Prague last week—which was one of those places I visited when I was 20—and even though I ended up living there for three years (and have since returned often), I found myself still giddy at the sight of the gothic Charles Bridge and the castle looming over the city. One thing I love about travel, even to those places I’ve spent time in, is that it consistently shakes up our world view and stagnation, making us question beliefs and assumptions not just about the culture we’re traveling in but about the way we think and the things we assume to be true about life and the world. For that reason, I always feel like I’m truly living—really taking advantage of my time here—when I’m on the road.

Amen. What’s next for you? Is there another mysterious foreskin you’ll soon be investigating, or hilltop village you’ll soon be inhabiting?

I have a couple book ideas, and I’m trying to sort out which one—if any—would be worth pursuing. As you could probably guess, Jesus’s foreskin is a tough act to follow.

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