Lost in Translation: Ancient Stories in Art

Giordano_Bruno_Campo_dei_Fiori
Statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo de’ Fiori

The first time I realized that my obscure knowledge of Rome had really sunk in was in the early to mid-aughts. Friends of mine had returned from a family wedding in the Italian capital. Specifically, the ceremony had been held at San Silvestro in Capite.

“That’s where they keep the reliquary of the head of John the Baptist,” I said, gleefully. I had most certainly been drinking but I was still impressed with my recall. My friends and I had a chuckle over my delight as we talked more about Rome and its macabre monuments.

For as long as I’ve been attracted to Rome and Italy, I’ve been interested in some of the more gruesome aspects of its history: its slaughter of animals during Colosseum spectacles, the chapels that contain body parts and whole bodies of saints. When you walk into Rome’s churches, you are literally walking on graves. And when you stroll through any part of this ancient city, you are stepping on top of sites where many people, from gladiators to Christians to non-believers, met their ends. Images and reminders of death are everywhere here, which is probably one of the reasons Rome’s citizens have developed a coping mechanism – a zest for life – over the years.

These are heavy things to think about. But Rome’s past is especially fresh in my mind these days when it is hard to turn on the television or open the paper (or browser tab) without learning about the latest horrible way that a human has died at the hands of another human or group of humans. There is no need for me to provide a link to any of these news stories; everyone knows what I’m talking about. But still it has been hard to square my interest in the minutiae of Rome’s destructive past with the horrors of today.

Just a visit to some of well-known tourist stops in Rome remind me of current events. San Silvestro in Capite has the head of John the Baptist in a silver filigreed reliquary. Santa Maria del Popolo has an exquisite and well-known Caravaggio that depicts Saint Peter being crucified upside down. Saint Agnese in Agone, the large church fronting Piazza Navona, has a side chapel with the head of Saint Agnes. She was 12 when a Roman prefect sent her to a brothel (for refusing to marry his son); she was eventually burned at the stake then beheaded. In the upper church of San Clemente one finds the chapel of St. Catherine, which contains beautiful Masolino frescoes of the life of St. Catherine of Alexandria and the life of St. Ambrose. Catherine’s beheading is depicted on the left side, a calm, colorful, 2-D rendering of a heinous act.

I could go on and on with the lovely art that depicts Christian martyrs and their horrible deaths. The crucifixions. The beheadings. The eventual saints who were drawn and quartered or buried alive or stoned to death. Of course we don’t have as many works of art showing the torture that the Christians, once they came into power, inflicted on the non-Christians. But there are a few. The solemn statue of Giordano Bruno in the center of Campo de’ Fiori is a powerful reminder that there were men (and women and children) killed for putting forward ideas that were not in line with the church doctrine. Bruno was burned alive for suggesting that the universe is infinite, that stars are distant suns.

Likewise, the Stolpersteiner, those tiny bronze pavements embedded in the ground outside homes of those Jewish citizens who were deported by the Nazis on October 16, 1943, memorialize those who were rounded up, tortured, and killed for being Other, for being powerless in the face of those whose power made them forget their own humanity.

I believe art and memorials are important. But the more that I see them around Rome – a city that has thousands of years of history painting on its church walls, engraved in its ancient buildings, and chiseled into statues – the more I am reminded of how torture and death are lost in translation from the stories we tell and the images we create of those stories.

Many of us up until this past year have been able to live with a sense of detachment from death. This is not to say that we have all had it easy and that we have not experienced the wrenching sadness of knowing death on a personal level. But death of the nature that is often depicted in art and enshrined in memorials around Italy has always felt like something that only happened long ago.

I still look at religious relics – the arms and doubting fingers and disembodied heads – with a sort of fascination. But while my thoughts used to be, “Look how barbaric humans once were,” I now think about how much further we – as a society, as humans – need to go.

A final note: as a quasi-agnostic, non-practicing, non-denominational Christian, I wish it were as simple as eliminating all religions. Humans get too exercised over beliefs that other humans have codified, no matter how absurd they may be. But I didn’t want to write this piece as an assault on religion. I’ve lived in majority Christian, Hindu, and Muslim countries and have known most people to be smart and kind and loving, in spite of or because of their religions.


Italy Blogging Roundtable

Please read these other posts on “Lost in Translation” from the ladies of the Italy Blogging Roundtable. Note that we have a new lady, Michelle from Bleeding Espresso. Welcome!

Jessica – False Friends & A False Sense of Security
Gloria – Senza parole…
Rebecca – Lost in Translation
Alexandra – The alphabet of impossible Italian translations
Kate – Things my Sicilian Boyfriend and I fight about
Michelle – Lost in Translation: Adventures in Sola-tude

See the Shirt John Paul II Wore On Day He Was Shot

Visitors to a small convent in Rome’s Prati neighborhood can now have a look at Rome’s newest relic – the blood-stained shirt that Pope John Paul II was wearing on the day Mehmet Ali Agca attempted to assassinate him in St. Peter’s Square in 1981. The relic is housed in the convent of the Figlie delle Carità di S. Vincenzo de Paoli, Via Ezio 28, near the Lepanto Metro stop. RomeReports.com offers the full story of the relic and how it came to reside in the convent.

If you want to make sure you don’t miss this relic on your next visit to Rome, the Figlie della Carità offer rooms for budget travelers who don’t mind staying at a place with a curfew. According to Santa Susanna, the American Catholic church in Rome, room rates at the sisters’ Casa Maria Immacolata start at €40 single/€75 double and include breakfast. Curfew is at 11pm.

‘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.


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.


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.

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.

Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin is one of Italy’s most famous relics, 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.” 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. Check the Torino Tourism website for updated 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.

Sacra Cintola - Sacred Belt, Prato

Mary’s Holy Belt

The 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)
  • Saint Valentine’s head in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin (the rest of the body is in Terni, Umbria)
  • The head of Saint Agnes, located in a side chapel of Sant’Agnese in Agone (the huge church that fronts Piazza Navona)
  • 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
  • Saint Francis Xavier’s forearm in the church of the Gesù (the rest of the body is in Goa, India)
  • 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’ve barely even scratched the surface of all of the unusual relics one can find in Italy. So, what’s your favorite? Please leave your comment below!

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