Umberto Eco: The Prague Cemetery, Something About Setting
Why is Simonini, the young Italian forger at the center of The Prague Cemetery, from Turin, and not from some other Italian city. He is not from Eco's home town, not from Bologna with its traditions in science and law, not from chaotic, complex thoroughly modern and thoroughly medieval Rome. He is from a city largely associated by European and American minds with a single object: the shroud of Turin.
The shroud of Turin appeared in the city in the late 16th century. It reputedly had a past before that, including an escape from a fire in Chambray in 1532, but its past is not recorded until after its 16th century arrival in Turin. It was brought to the cathedral of San Giovanni, where it remains, occasionally taking a tour, but largely an unseen object of faithful veneration and scientific dispute. If the shroud did have an existence prior to its arrival in Turin, it may very well have been the fake shroud denounced in 1389 by Bishop Pierre d'Arcis. The shroud has certainly been at the center of controversy and debate between the sceptics and the believers in the twentieth century, and science seems to be on the side of the sceptics. Science has not, however, and never will get in the way of believers.
I am convinced by the science that the shroud is a fraud, and so I will be following that line of reasoning in this article. As faith cannot be proven, if you disagree with the science hold fast to your faith, but do not engage in a futile and ultimately frustrating attempt to sway me to your side. Faith is a leap, not a proof; let us leave it at that. I do not leap.
So, the shroud periodically reappears in the public for viewing, and when it is up for reviewing, new fire is kindled in the public debate over its veracity. Is it Jesus Christ's death shroud, or is it a medieval fraud? The evidence says--medieval fraud. But why fake a shroud? What purpose would this have served in the 14th (early date) or 16th centuries? Well, there was in medieval Europe a booming business in relics and in creating venues for pilgrimage. The shroud was not created to convince people that Christ existed, was crucified, and rose from the dead. That was a 'fact' in the medieval ages that very few people would doubt, and those who did doubt it, except for the Jews surviving as an example of the stubborn peoples who would be punished by God in the next life and could be humiliated in this one, were subject to rather severe ecclesiastic and secular penalties. The shroud had a different purpose. It was a relic, and a very special, unique relic, for if you believed it to be true, you also believed that it had touched the body of Christ. It's 'blood', sweat, and tears were those of Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of Man, the King of Kings. Other churches might have the bones of saints, of martyrs, weeping statues, and apostles nail clippings, but San Giovanni could claim, and did claim, that it had Christ Himself, with all that holy power, present at its grounds. The possession of such a powerful, sacred object would draw pilgrims to San Giovanni, and with pilgrim bodies came pilgrim money, big business in the middle ages.
That is the cynical explanation for the creation of the shroud of Turin: it was all business. Surely, we see that profit motive, that sort of cynicism, at work in our young forger in The Prague Cemetery. But there is another component to both our forger and the creation of the shroud of Turin that we have yet to address: the pious fraud. This, as I mentioned in Part Two of this series, is presented to the reader of Eco's novel through the notary, Rebaudengo: the creation of what should be, of proofs for realities that were not provided by negligence or some other cause.
Christ died; there should be a shroud. Creating the shroud provides what was missing in reality, replaces a real object that had been lost, perhaps to the infidels who ruled in the Middle East. The shroud of Turin could be a fiction created in pious service to the divine reality, to the world as it should be, where nothing is lost, nothing forgotten, and salvation always present to man in his sorrow. Through the creation of the shroud, or rather the re-creation of The Shroud, the medieval artist(s) participated in the renewal of the created world, they served God. This is a more gentle, more complex explanation of the motives behind the shroud's creation, and also a far more beautiful one than that of crass commercial manipulation of a given market.
But what if the reality you are serving is not beautiful, not divine, and yet you renew it, you participate in its revivification, its strengthening, anyway? That is what our young forger does with his conspiracy documents, his Ultimate Form. He, too, is performing a pious fraud, committed to re-creating his grandfather's obsession with the Jews as a malicious, unadulterated evil force at work in the world in the 'proofs' of documents, of giving his grandfather's nightmare eternal life in the form of a text, of multiple texts that feed and grow upon one another.
And that is why when we were in Italy we were in Turin and no other place.
For more information on the shroud of Turin:
- an article on the shroud of Turin at http://skepdic.com/shroud.html
- an artists address of the shroud of Turin, with interesting information on how certain abnormalities present in the shroud clearly show the influence of conventions of Gothic art in its production: http://www.infidels.org/kiosk/article815.html
- a 2009 reproduction of the methods that might have been used in the middle ages to produce an object like the shroud: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1218457/Shroud-Turin-replica-proves-medieval-techniques-make-relic-say-scientists.html