Since April 10th of this year, Torino, Italy has been crowded by a strange mob of tourists: endless streams of international and local people, old and young, pious and less pious. They are Catholics, and believers of other religions, too.
The Shroud Crowd walks the majestic straight streets under the portici of this city, the first capital of Italy. Italy is celebrating its 150th anniversary next year, in 2011. Actually, people in Torino are wondering if that event will become an official "celebration," since the right-wing government of premier Silvio Berlusconi is so eager to split the country between the north and south, the rich and poor, the locals and the foreigners. With the separatists of the Northern League in power, the unification of Italy is presented as a curse more than a benefit.
The crowd meandering the streets of Torino is not here for political reasons. They are here to see the shroud of Christ: a piece of fabric appertaining to the most famous martyr in the world, after his crucifixion. Now that’s the legend: the scientific/historic truth being that this frail and stained cotton wrapping, of obscure origin, was brought to this part of the world by Anne de Lusignan, Princess of Cyprus, and Duchess of Savoy. In the year 1452, Anne bought the Shroud from yet another woman, the widow Jeanne de Charney, in exchange for a minor castle.
Anne seems to have picked up this holy relic on a whim, for she was known for extravagance. However, Duchess Anne made one of the best tourism deals in all Italian history. The Shroud has been repeatedly proved a fake — it was very doubtful even in the 1400s — but that has never changed its importance. On the contrary: it has been kept in a box in a church in Torino, only to be exhibited every ten to fifteen years.
This is one of the good years: the Shroud is exposed in the central church on the central square, near the royal palace, until May 23. Tourists have made their reservations months in advance: queues are endless in front of the church, and all languages can be heard. The presence of the Shroud Crowd is so thick that they have even chased off the gypsy beggars who commonly man that locale. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps all people become humble beggars before the miraculous fabric.
On May 2, the Pope himself visited Torino to honor the shroud. Unity between the Roman Church and the Italian state has rarely been so strong as today, perhaps because both Pope Benedict and his ally Silvio Berlusconi have been racked with endless sex scandals, involving either prostitutes or pedophilia.
During the Pope’s one-day stay, many antipapal protests were held in this beautiful city: the Savoy capital, the Fiat industrial capital, and today the cultural capital of Italy. From atheists, Communists and anarchists to lay Catholics, gays and lesbians, people were protesting loudly and wittily in the collateral streets of Torino — the streets not closed because of the many pious visitors and the Pope.
The pious have a specific look these days in the new millenium. They don’t act or look particularly pious any more: they consume a lot of Italian food, dress in lively colors, seem rather happy and wealthy by the modern standards of the debt crisis. Like all pleasure tourists, they buy a whole lot of souvenirs. A whole local industry was triggered by this occasion; from t shirts to wall pictures, calendars, blobjects, books....unimaginable designer fantasies connected to the piece of fabric with the face of Christ faintly bloodstained within it.
Surviving members of the former royal family of Savoy were sitting in the first row admiring the Pope. These former royals are rather unpopular in Torino today, a city of workers and engineers. The royals are resented for their tight historical connection to the fascism of Benito Mussolini, when the treaty between Mussolini and the Church was signed. Il Concordato delegated the control of many civil and human rights (such as abortion and divorce) to the ecclesiastical authorities.
The Savoy royals are living descendants of Duchess Anne de Lusignan, that woman who brought the Shroud and who bred 19 children for the dynasty in her 43-year lifespan. This amazing feat makes Anne the grandmother of all European nobility, though her role in snagging the Shroud is rarely mentioned today. This exotic Crusader princess, brought from her distant island in a marriage swap, seems to have been an eternal foreigner in the Savoy Alps and foothills.
Ever loyal to her palace clique of Cypriot emigres, Anne was a strong willed and beautiful woman who collected art and music as well as spare shrouds. Anne brought to Torino and maybe even Italy the biggest gift that any foreign spouse can bring: a token of global culture. It has proven to be an enduringly popular culture.