Reviewed by Rachel Barber
Auglaize County (Ohio) Historical Society
As the book's introduction notes, Giovanni Maria de Agostini was a man who "combined two seemingly contradictory aspirations: a fervent desire to devote his whole life to 'perfect solitude' and an astonishing urge to travel incessantly."
Born in Italy at the turn of the 19th century, a teenaged Agostoni received a vision from the Blessed Virgin Mary that he should travel, a directive he followed unwaveringly for the rest of his life. Agostini spent the next two decades in Italy and Spain, eventually taking the vows of St. Anthony the Abbot in Rome in 1838.
Agostini "actively [modeled]" his life and even his appearance after St. Anthony. For the remainder of his life Agostini lived as an ascetic, disdaining all but the minimal necessities to sustain life. Indeed, Agostini pursued discomfort: he refused to accept rides in buggies or wagons, but made all land journeys by foot. He sought to live in mountainside caves. At the time of his death it was discovered that he had worn multiple iron cilice and slept on a mattress of prickly pear cactus.
In 1838 Agostini boarded a ship for the Americas, never again returning to Europe. His travels took him through nine South American countries (including a canoe trip down the Amazon), then to Mexico and Cuba. The latter is where his photograph was taken and mass-produced as a souvenir, and where Agostini garned the title of "Wonder of the Century." From Cuba, Agostino traveled by way of the United States to Canada, then back to the United States, and eventually to Mexico, where he was murdered by persons unknown in 1869.
Agostini is remembered in many places around the world, but Thomas's effort is the most exhaustive effort at documenting Agostino's life. Thomas is a meticulous historian. The book's bibliography cites no fewer than three-dozen books and periodicals, another ten unpublished sources, as well as newspapers from the United States, Mexico, and Brazil. Wonder of the Century does not lack documentation.
The book is at its best when Thomas allows Agostini and his fellow citizens of the ninteenth century to speak to us directly:
I came to a retired solitude in Campestre (Brazil), where I spent eleven months. Moving there from Santa Maria de la Boca del Monte. In this last wilderness, I discovered a mineral spring with wonderful curative properties, and the place...became a prosperous town. Ignorant people began to think that the cures produced by the water, and the natural remedies I gave them, were the efforts of my own personal holiness, and I had to leave the place to escape their constant visits and their too great honors. (pp 65-66)
Or, from Mexico:
From jail to jail we traveled till we reached the city of Puebla. It is incredible what I had to suffer among those wolves, lions, tigers, and snakes. Four pawed animals of like names never did me the east harm, but the two-legged ones have caused me too much suffering, but let the Almighty be praised for it all, to the end of time. The governor of Puebla asked me if I were crazy, and I answered that I was, but that there were many more, crazier than myself. 'And who are they?'' 'They are not far, indeed. There was once a little boy who had a beautiful golden apple in his hand, and that same boy exchanged that golden apple for an ordinary one. For sure, that boy was crazy. And we ourselves, we are crazy, since we exchange God and his eternal glory for the infamous and nasty pleasures of the world. (pp. 108-109)
Agostini attracted as many detractors as fans, and Thomas cites his critics as well:
Agostini is a lazy vagrant, a true vagabond, who has housed himself in two caves on Citaltepetl: that his occupation has been to preach Christian morality; but in return he receives offerings from the farmers of the region, be it in the form of money, rice or carved wax. (p. 111)
Thomas’s effort to be exhaustive leads to the book’s biggest flaw: too much tangential detail. The diversions range from an entire chapter on the life of St. Anthony to an explanation of the length of reciting the Rosary to multiple mini-biographies of minor characters in Agostini's life. These detours distract from the genuinely fascinating story of this hermit and mountain dweller. Similarly distracting is editorializing within the biographical narrative. One of the most notable examples is a paragraph criticizing the "unknown, self-appointed, do-gooder" who added a new marker to Agostini's grave in 2013. The organization of the book is also wanting on occasion, with the chronology of the narrative lost in jumps through time that are difficult to follow.
These deficiencies mar what could have been an engaging book. As it is, readers will be grateful to Thomas for bringing attention and formidable research to an inherently fascinating subject; a more disciplined approach to writing would have resulted in a more wholehearted endorsement.