Carthage in the fifth century AD: Julia belonged to a noble but ruined family. She was 15 years old and had a free spirit when she was engaged to a rich and hateful old man. She begged her parents to spare her, but their word had been given. So she endeavoured to flee. She was beautiful. On the coast she was kidnapped by slave merchants. They loaded her on to a large boat with other women prisoners destined for brothels. On board the ship they suffered hunger, whipping and fights for food, while those who were ill were thrown overboard. Julia found a protector: Himalk the sailor, cheerful and to be feared, with a shining white mane and a mongoose wrapped round his neck like a scarf. Himalk did not protect only Julia.
He was also always ready to help the prisoners and defended them against the violence of the crew. And for so doing he bore the pirates’ punishments with a sort of luminous pride. Julia wanted to discover the secret of his strength, and especially of his joy. He spoke to her of Jesus. To her, who had always considered the Christians to be an unreliable sect, this man made an adventurous vision flash before her eyes. He revealed to her that this life is only apparent, that the true life will be in heaven. And that death does not exist, it is the door to eternity. Julia became enthusiastic about the Gospel. Himalk put her on her guard: the prohibited religion demanded much. Courage was not enough, heroism was needed. To be worthy of Christ one must be just, even at the cost of one’s life. She became even more excited: it was precisely this that fascinated her, the impracticability of the Gospel, the extreme challenge to human nature. Love your enemy, turn the other cheek and always tell the truth. What human being is capable of so much? No one can attain the demands of the young man of Galilee – it was precisely this that seduced her – who asks for the unattainable. One night, when everyone was asleep, Himalk baptized her with sea water.
A young slave girl was running a high temperature and the sailors wanted to toss her to the fish. Himalk tried to prevent this. He swooped down among them, he fought – he was a Christian yet thrashed them with hard punches – but he was overpowered and thrown into the water together with the sick girl. Julia saw him disappear among the waves. The mongoose had remained on board. Julia picked it up. A terrible storm immediately broke out that ripped the sails to shreds. The boat sank and everyone drowned. Julia alone saved herself by clinging to a bit of wreckage, with the mongoose round her neck and her new, new Christian faith. Off the coast of Corsica a fisherman pulled her into his boat. He and his wife were to look after her as a daughter. Now that she had learned to see, Julia saw the plan of Providence: the pirates saved her from another form of slavery – even her family had wanted to sell her – and on board ship she met Himalk who gave her Jesus. Then there was this wild island with few landing places, where no one would ever be able to find her. She thought of the trick played against her betrothed, and although she was a Christian she burst out laughing. It was her gaiety and gentleness which brought her adoptive parents to love her. She repaid them for taking her in by speaking to them of the Gospel. They both wanted to become Christians. Julia baptized them too with sea water, in memory of Himalk – another secret Baptism: in this island too Christ was outlawed. All the inhabitants made sacrifices to the gods and those who denied them were punished by death. But the kindly inhabitants of Nonza, a hamlet of four houses perched high above the sea, were not fanatics and were fond of Julia.
To her that land of fishermen and mountaineers, of chestnuts and donkeys, of woods and rivers meant freedom and wonder. In Carthage they had never even let her out of the house. Now she climbed by herself on dangerous tracks, the mongoose round her neck. Before her ran wild sheep, deer, boar, horses... above her flew eagles and falcons. For the first time she saw snow. In all things Julia saw God’s hand and prayed to him in her own way: “Lord, I fear that you have made the world too beautiful this year”.
The plan became clear: the shipwreck had brought her here to spread the Gospel among those simple, strong people. Not with words. She did not aim to convert them. Her way of recounting Jesus was being Christian. She was at the service of the lame, the desperate and the poor. When she had nothing to give, she went hunting. She was accomplished with a bow and arrows, a small Christian Diana, and thus fed the children.
Once again, however, her beauty proved fatal. The few males of Nonza all desired her but stood in such awe of her that none of them dared to come forward. This girl was the mother of the village. But the arrogant son of the local despot did not suffer from these scruples and asked her to marry him. Julia refused. Secretly she had made a vow of chastity. She belonged to Jesus and could not marry anyone else. It was Felix, the Governor, the young man’s father, who was offended. How could that beggar girl dare to refuse such a great honour? He sent for her in the presence of his son. She appeared in front of him serenely with her mongoose. Felix was overcome by her beauty. His impulse would have been to lie with her immediately, but his son was present. And then there was the girl’s intolerable attitude, utterly fearless and with no respect for his rank. Julia was in his hands, it depended on him whether to let her live or die and yet she did not tremble. The Governor’s desire became a desire to bend her to his will, humiliating her in all that was dearest to her. He well knew that she was a Christian – people get to know everything at Nonza – and he ordered her to make sacrifices to the gods. If she did so he would let her go free. Julia answered: “I am already free serving Jesus Christ my Lord, whereas were I to serve your pagan idols I would not be free”.
The Governor insisted, he came to the point of threatening her with his dagger. She did not give in.
Felix grabbed the mongoose and stabbed it. He then ordered that Julia’s hair should be torn out and that she should be crucified. In pronouncing this condemnation he looked at her I order to enjoy her terror. But, transfigured, she said: “Crucified like my Lord? This is indeed a great honour”.
Not even the saint’s atrocious agony extinguished the rage of her persecutor. He had never suffered a more shameful defeat. A little later he went out of his mind and threw himself off a cliff.
That very same day a hot spring with miraculous healing powers welled up at the foot of her cross. A fragment of her skull, two vertebrae and a few hairs are all that is left of St Julia the martyr, Patroness of Corsica and Livorno. Her relics are preserved at Pisa and at Nonza, in the Church of Santa Giulia, built in the Venetian Baroque style. In the official iconography the saint is shown on the cross, but a rare Corsican ex-voto on wood, dating back to the end of the 19th century, shows a girl with an intense gaze and a mongoose round her neck like a stole. They both have halos..
Barbara Alberti, a writer, lives in Rome. Her books are eclectic, aspiring to combat the portrayal of the female sex as losers. The works she has published differ from each other; they range from the picaresque Memorie malvage (1976) to the meditative Vangelo secondo Maria (1979) and to endeavours veined with greater humour and provocation, such as Il signore è servito 1983), Povera bambina (1988), Parliamo d’amore 1989), Delirio [Delirium] and Gianna Nannini da Siena , both published in 1991, as well as Il promesso sposo (1994).. In 2003 she published Gelosa di Majakovskij – a biography for which she was awarded the Alghero Donna Prize – and Il principe volante, in which she recounted the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. She is also the author of numerous film scripts, including Il portiere di notte [The Night Porter], directed by Liliana Cavani (1974), as well as theatrical texts ( Ecce homo).
St. Peter’s Square
Aug. 17, 2019
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