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Il presepio: Traditional Christmas manger scene both a sacred and cultural treasure

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The art of a Neapolitan nativity on display in the San Gregorio Armeno market place in Naples. | ADOBESTOCK

Il presepio, the nativity manger scene, is one of the most enduring symbols of Christmas for Italian families. The Italian word comes from the Latin word praesepium for crib. Displaying mangers in homes, churches, piazze, public areas and throughout the streets of the country is a treasured and time-honored tradition. The origin of a nativity display dates to 1223 in the town of Greccio near Assisi. Biographers of St. Francis recorded that he brought a live ox, a straw crib, and live actors to portray the birth of Christ. This took place in a wooded area where he performed a mass honoring the event. Around this time, he also commissioned an artist named Giovanni Vellito to craft one of the first documented presepi.

Intricate details highlight Neapolitan lifestyle of the times. The manger in the background has a Roman arch to frame the holy family in Bethlehem.

Presepi were originally designed to display nativity figures which portrayed the birth of Jesus. The baby is in a crib surrounded by Mary and Joseph. The scene often included the three wise men. The most traditional of presepi includes the holy family and depicts Roman ruins which symbolize the end of pagan times. They also include the arrival of the three wise men, and two musician shepherds, known as zampognari, carrying their zampogna. This is an Italian double chantered bagpipe used as far north as the southern part of the Marche, throughout areas in Abruzzo, Latium, Molise, Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, Apulia, and Sicily. The nativity may also include animals and the star of David. Today many have transformed into much more elaborate displays.

The city of Naples became the first to create presepi for mass production. The first mention of a presepio in Naples was documented around 1233 in a church and there are written records of one made for a private home on the Amalfi coast. Sometime in the 14th century, artisans in Naples began to create more elaborate displays with religious figurines but also included pastori. These were figurines not associated with the religious aspects of a nativity scene but created to depict the people and cultural norms of the area from the time period in which they were crafted. Figurines such as peasants, beggars, soldiers, farmers, and other representations of people living in the area were a portrayal of the vibrant people and culture of Naples.

A range of pastori figurines include both traditional and more current pieces.

In Naples, the lines between sacred and secular began to blur as more elaborate displays included typical scenes of the area. Along with the holy family, artisans now included scenes of everyday life in the city which meant bar maids, vendors, politicians, housewives and workers as well as animals, foods, and structures typical of the city. Many Neapolitan designs looked more like the city itself, showing scenes of pizzerie, food stores, workshops, and a plethora of food items as well as the inns where residents met to eat and socialize. The depiction of the holy family sometimes took a back seat as they were commonly placed in a corner of the scene. The ruins of a roman arch were usually fixed near the stable scene to identify that part as the city of Bethlehem.

The majority of the first nativity mangers crafted were detailed life-size figures made of wood or terracotta adorned with vibrant colors and gold leaf. One of the largest nativity scenes created sometime in the 1470s was a 42-piece work for a private chapel. In subsequent decades Neapolitan sculptors designed and placed many of these inside churches such as San Domenico Maggiore, Santa Maria La Nova and San Gregorio Armeno.

A simple but classical design features a zampognaro with his zampogna hanging on the wall.

In the 1500s sculptors began to craft figurines and accessories on a much smaller scale to appeal to individual buyers. In addition to using wood, terracotta, and stone, they began using papier-mâché which was a less expensive medium. By the 18th century many pastorai (those who made the pastori figures) benefited from the patronage of King Charles III. This was during a time when Italian theater became extremely popular and the magical and elaborate sets of theater productions inspired the pastorai to create even more lavish designs.

This included the addition of architectural structures which reflected the landscape of the city and the surrounding areas and the inclusion of scenes of everyday life in more detail. Whether small or large, these creations invite one to reflect not only on the religious meaning of the display but to also enjoy learning about the historical and cultural themes they depict. In a nod to ever changing norms newer displays now include electricity and running water and the figurines now include sports heroes, celebrities, and government officials.

The design and construction of large presepi has mostly remained unchanged over the centuries. Sculptors may compose the figurines with clay or linden wood with heads of terracotta. They may use blown glass for eyes, wigs made of real hair and clothing out of costly fabrics. The addition of grottos and city or town scenes are another specialty. Some of these scenes use lighting and mechanical pieces that move or produce sounds.

The most famous market for the construction and sale of pieces for these nativity displays is on the street of Via San Gregorio Armeno outside the church with the same name. Christmas markets across Italy also sell figurines and accessories which are popular to purchase for oneself or as a gift. Presepi are not just popular in churches and piazze but are a staple for Italians in their homes.

The production of figurines is big business in Italy. Each year around 200,000 terracotta figures are made for the nativity trade in Naples or the outskirts of the city. A third of these are produced in the San Gregorio Armeno neighborhood. Pastorai unveil new figurines each year for the tourist market with funny versions of figures from pop culture, the papacy, celebrities, and politics.

Today there are some 40 active workshops of presepi and pastorai around the via San Gregorio Armeno neighborhood in the historic center of Naples. Some of the workshops are long-lasting family affairs, producing high-quality works based on historical models. The family-owned company of Marco Giuseppe Ferrigno has been in business since 1836. They own several workshops and are well known for producing classical scenes and figures in the 18th century Neapolitan design. The family prides itself on using traditional methods and materials in the construction of their scenes.

Other shops produce lower quality presepi and cheaper souvenir pieces. There are shops that resell mangers and individual pieces and then there are the businesses that manufacture the parts and accessories used to complete the designs.

Many churches, both small and large, have intricate presepi which are on full display at Christmas but are also available for viewing at other times. During a visit to the Capuchin Monastery in Francavilla di Sicilia one summer, our family was delighted to study a large, detailed display set up within the church. I also once came upon a beautiful exhibit in Piazza Navona which was set up in the back of an ambulance. Of course, there are presepi vivente (living nativity scenes) to enjoy all across the country as well.

Not all nativity scenes are set up in piazze, churches, homes, or public spaces. Some of them are also set up underwater such as the one in Trapani, on the island of Sicily. Another underwater presepio is situated inside the Emerald Grotto located on the Amalfi Coast. This one was constructed of ceramic and fiberglass and then placed approximately four meters deep sometime in the 1960s. Residents of the area asked for it to be set there in honor of loved ones who had lost their lives in the waters nearby. During the holiday season it has become a ritual for scuba divers to swim to the site to honor the holy family.

In many parts of Italy, especially in the south, building and placing a presepio in homes remains a major part of Christmas celebrations even as some families now include a Christmas tree. Some families will set up more than one and it is also common to give pieces as a gift or to purchase an additional piece each year. Some families use a presepio or figurines which have been handed down to them over the years. Some add elements that are connected to their family heritage such as using vine clippings if one owns a vineyard. They may add a water feature which symbolizes baptism. Traditionally, it was a man’s job to set up the presepio, but women are now just as involved.

Outdoor and public displays are ready for viewing beginning on Dec. 8, the day of the Immaculate Conception and usually not removed until Jan. 6 on the Epiphany.

This is one holiday tradition that is central to Italian families as both a sacred and cultural treasure.

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