Kirkus Star


In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town
Email this review


In a lively blend of religious history, humor and quirky travel narrative, accomplished travel writer Farley (Writing/New York Univ.) chronicles his capricious journey to a tiny medieval Italian village in search of a controversial relic—the foreskin of Jesus Christ.

This shriveled bit of flesh was for centuries a popular and powerful relic, elevated by Charlemagne and revered by Constantine, but when rival prepuces started popping up everywhere, the Catholic Church began to doubt its authenticity. Stolen from Rome by a German mercenary and hidden under a pile of manure in Calcata, the scrap became the town’s spiritual nucleus despite threats of excommunication for anyone who venerated it. Yet in 1983, it disappeared, seemingly without a trace or much of an uproar. The mystery Farley sought to solve was twofold: Where did the prepuzio go, and why did no one care? The author’s qualifications were a Catholic childhood and his good-natured but unquenchable curiosity. With few clues and only a rudimentary knowledge of Italian, he managed to communicate with nearly everyone in the area who might have useful information. He even gained entrance to the Vatican library. Farley’s gift for timing and comic understatement makes the book seem like a madcap adventure solely attempted for the pleasure of writing about it later—the text seamlessly alternates between medieval religious history and anecdotal travelogue. Farley makes the history and culture of venerating relics almost as entertaining as his encounters with the colorful assortment of half-cracked locals and aging artists in this village of “freaks.” While savoring the local meals, customs, hangouts and hang-ups, the author learned at least as much about Calcata and its people as about the missing relic. In his quest to uncover the fate of a piece of pious history through a series of unorthodox—though not exactly blasphemous—escapades, he offers an unforgettable glimpse of Italian provincial life.

Genre-bending at its best.

Pub Date: July 9th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59240-454-4
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Gotham Books
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2009