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The Art & Politics of the Nativity

The Angel Tree: A Christmas Celebration (1993)

by Linn Howard, by Mary Jane Pool
Abrams, 88 pp., $25.95

Scene e scenografie del presepe Napoletano (1991)

by Gennaro Borrelli
Naples: Tullio Pironti Editore, 279 pp., L180,000

Il presepio: Otto secoli di storia, arte, tradizione (1995)

by Pietro Gargano
Milan: Fenice 2000, 190 pp., L70,000

El belén: Historia, tradición y actualidad (1992)

by Pablo Martínez-Palomero
AURA Communicación, 207 pp.

Il presepe Napoletano del settecento (1995)

by Teodoro Fittipaldi
Milan: Electa, 96 pp., L70,000

Venite Adoremus: Note sul presepe Genovese (1993)

catalog of the 1993-1994 exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale, Genoa.
Genoa: Tormena Editore, 95 pp., L70,000

Il presepe riscoperto: Un “unicum” Napoletano del seicento a Genova (1989)

by Giuliana Biavati, by Giulio Sommariva
Genoa: Editoriale Bieffe, 142 pp.

Il presepe Italiano (1993)

by Pietro Gasperini
Ivrea: Priuli & Verlucca Editori, 132 pp., L120,000

Il presepe Napoletano (1990)

by Gennaro Borrelli
Naples: Tullio Pironti Editore, 99 pp., L200,000

Ten years ago, my wife and I, passing through Italy shortly after Christmas, were surprised at the omnipresence of ambitiously staged Nativity scenes—what the French call crèches, the Spanish belenes, the Germans Krippen, Americans cribs or crèches, but the Italians presepi (the plural of presepio

It seemed a good idea to spend a whole Christmas season in Italy traveling about to look at presepi. We did not suspect what a daunting project this could be. The presepi have deep roots—artistic, theological, even political roots. There are regional traditions, divergent interpretations, and varying tastes (from the most refined to the meretricious). Museums and art historians are busy at the preservation and study of antique presepi, while master craftsmen try to rescue old techniques from the stamped-out plastic figurines that flood the shops every Christmas.

Most Italians consider themselves experts on this subject, since the odds are that they have constructed at least one presepe of their own. The schools run contests for the most imaginative presepi, and the winners are displayed in civic buildings, train stations, and malls. The first of these children’s shows one encounters is a revelation—striking effects can be achieved with homely materials. But several of them exhaust the obvious possibilities—presepi made all of pasta, of seashells, of rags.

The first time we saw a presepe set in an empty television set, we laughed. But the idea is common now, and no contest seemed to lack at least one. Pastry shops play all the changes on chocolate caves, sugar snow, and nuts as stones. Some of the products sell for hundreds of dollars, and one wonders what children make of the idea of eating the baby Jesus’ home.

As one expects of a cultural practice with such deep historical roots, spread over all the different regions and classes of modern Italy, there is every degree of naiveté and sophistication in attitudes toward the presepio. The pious give it religious devotion—like that of the priest who founded the presepio museum in Bregna, or the Franciscan keepers of the shrine at Greccio. Folk-magic elements of Mariolatry are found in things like the prayers of pregnant women to the Madonna of the Parturition. It is, to larger groups in a secular era, a seasonal convention like Dickens’s Christmas Carol in this country. Or a child’s tale like our Santa Claus. Certain artisans keep up a school of craftsmanship devoted to the presepio. As national lore it elicits some degree of patriotism, “an Italian thing to do.” Scholars, collectors, and museum curators search for the layers of cultural history embedded in the figures of presepi. It is a challenge to sort out some of the contributing factors in this tradition—legend, liturgy, mystery plays, processions, sculpture, elaborate landscaping, theatrical “machinery.”

1. Greccio

Greccio is a village outside Rieti (forty miles northeast of Rome). It seems as good a place as any to begin, since legend makes a cave outside Greccio the birthplace of all Italian presepi. Saint Francis of Assisi, wanting to replicate the humble beginnings of his Lord, made this cave a little Bethlehem, complete with a real ox and ass, and real hay on which to lay an image of the divine baby. At midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, 1223, a devout member of the band attending the service said he saw the baby figure come alive in Francis’s arms—a miracle confirmed when the straw on which the babe was placed later cured illness.1 This is a story widely known and loved in Italy. In fact, some presepi we encountered far from Greccio were models of Saint Francis’s cave rather than of the Palestinian one. Francis rather than Mary held the child.

There is a little monastery formed around the hillside caves where Francis and his followers were living in 1223. The small presepe cave is bare but for two frescoes—a fourteenth-century depiction of Francis’s midnight Mass in the cave, and a fifteenth-century Nativity scene of the conventional sort. Along the nearby cliff face several presepi of sculpted stone are permanent, and other presepi from around the world are on display at Christmas time.

Francis’s early biographers show some nervousness about the story, since in 1207 Pope Innocent III had banned mystery plays from the liturgy. (They had become too raucous and secular.) The biographers assure us that Francis had the forethought to get a papal dispensation ahead of time, while he was in Rome winning approval for his Order’s rules, before uniting a theatrical recreation of the Bethlehem scene with midnight Mass. This reads like a post facto attempt to bring the spontaneous Francis back into line with Church legalities.

At the least this story tells us there were previous presentations of the Nativity enough like Francis’s to deny him credit for inventing the presepe. In fact, some think Francis’s staging of the event in a bare cave was a criticism of the more splendid ceremonies around a “little Bethlehem” in one of Rome’s major basilicas, Santa Maria Maggiore. If so, Francis’s intentions were thwarted, here as so often, by his own later followers. The famous Giottoesque fresco of the miracle that took place in the cave at Greccio, a fresco in the upper church at Assisi, shows a veritable liturgical army, all in ranks, attending Francis’s Mass. The original cave could not have accommodated such a throng, nor have fit in so much fancy church furniture (including a high altar, an ornate pulpit, and a church-dividing iconostasis).

Just to complete the ironies, every Epiphany (January 6), the friars of Greccio put on a “living presepe” in the courtyard before Saint Francis’s cave—the arrival of the Magi is enacted (something missing from Francis’s feast of the humble shepherds). This is a “mystery play” of the sort the Pope is supposed to have forbidden. The most interesting aspect of the Greccio story is that it reveals, grudgingly, a tension between officially approved presentations of the Nativity and “insurgent” piety of the non-authorized sort. It is a tension that recurs.

2. Rome

The next obvious place to turn is to Rome, where Francis no doubt saw some “little Bethlehems” in the major churches. The principal one contained, as one of the most famous relics of the Middle Ages, the very cradle in which Jesus was laid. The church, Santa Maria Maggiore, was known as “the church at the presepio,” even before the relic reached Rome in the eleventh century, since it already had a presepio chapel with bits of rock from the cave where Christ was born. Saint Jerome had initiated the cult of that cave at Bethlehem, so relics of Jerome were associated with the chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore. It was for this site that Arnolfo di Cambio created his five-piece sculptural scene of the Nativity (circa 1285-1287)—two side reliefs (ox and ass on the left, two Magi on the right), a standing Joseph, a kneeling Magus, and the seated Mary holding the child. Four of the five pieces still exist (Mary has disappeared, and a sixteenth-century substitute is placed too high for the eye-level of the original statues.2

This has often been called the first permanent three-dimensional presepe in Italy.3 It was certainly an influential one, a balanced confrontation of earthly power (the refined garments of the three Magi from the East) with humble local conditions (ox, ass, and sturdy Joseph) around the axis of the child. By joining these figures with the chapel in a liturgical setting, popes authorized an inanimate theater where they had banned actors playing the sacred persons. Since the popes for a long time said the first (midnight) of their three Christmas Masses at the Chapel of the Presepio, Arnolfo’s presepe was the “official” one by the fourteenth century.

The cave-relic was replaced in popular devotion by a new wonder out of the Holy Land—not, technically, a relic this time, but a miracle-working statuette of the baby Jesus carved from Palestinian olive wood. Housed at Santa Maria d’Aracoeli, a church Arnolfo had modified in his role as architect, this Santo Bambino was kept in its own chapel, to be moved out on Epiphany, and crowned by the kings in a grand eighteenth-century presepe still on view. A nineteenth-century “glory” of receding clouds has been added to the presepe, opening inward toward a perspective view of God the Father dispatching his Son to earth. This glory is created of large cutouts (cartoni) that were done by Renaissance artists to the north, but did not become fashionable in Rome until the last century.

Nineteenth-century prints show how popular were the “glories” above Roman presepi. The prints also include the contemporary audiences clustered to view presepi, rooting the experience in a Roman context at the same time the heavens were opened for God’s timeless decision. In fact, one can go out of the Folklore Museum near Santa Maria in Trastevere, walk a short way to Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, and see a nineteenth-century print from the museum copied in a life-size three-dimensional presepe outside the church’s courtyard, with cartoni of the “audience” from the print. This reverses the normal cartoni treatment—putting the earthly part of the show in cutouts.

It has become a strong Roman tradition to show the Nativity taking place in the streets of nineteenth-century Rome. In fact, inside the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere there is a presepe showing the birth outside the church, in the main Trastevere piazza. Modern presepi often draw on the detailed record of nineteenth-century Roman scenes left by the watercolorist Ettore Roesler Franz. Many of these watercolors are on display in the Folklore Museum, and presepi inspired by them are in the museum of the Italian Association of Friends of the Presepio near the Colosseum (Via Tor de’ Conti 31-A).4 Other examples are in the annual juried show—“One Hundred Presepi“—sponsored by the Rivista delle Nazioni in the Piazza del Popolo. In certain of these presepi, the “inn” that had no room for Joseph and Mary is an identifiable nineteenth-century hostelry, before which the child is born in the street, associating the Holy Couple with homeless Romans, another example of “insurgent” piety moving outside the churches.

3. Florence

The Florentines contributed to the iconography of the Three Kings with their ambitious Magi processions on the feast of the Epiphany. These had begun by the fourteenth century, but they became especially grand in the fifteenth, when the Medici made them expressions of their own civic piety and pageantry. The cult of the Magi centered around the Dominican convent of Saint Mark, of which the Medici were the patrons. The lay confraternity devoted to celebrating the Epiphany was headquartered there, and Cosimo de’ Medici had his own private quarters (with papally approved personal chapel) in the convent—a suite for which Benozzo Gozzoli painted a fresco of the Magi, a forerunner of the spectacular Chapel of the Magi he created in the Medici Palace.5 On Epiphany in 1443, Pope Eugenius IV stayed in Cosimo’s suite after celebrating the great procession. The convent itself was dedicated on that day, under the special protection of the Magi.

  1. 1

    Rudolf Berliner, the founder of modern scholarship on Nativity figures, thought there was no figurine of Jesus lying on Francis’s hay. In his view, the consecrated bread of the midnight Mass was the true baby. The “theater” was just a setting for the Mass. But Arduino Terzi makes a good case that the figurine was in the cave, while Mass was said in an adjoining area (there was no room for the liturgical event in the crowded little space with a live ox and ass). See Terzi, Nella selva di Greccio nacque il presepio plastico, second edition (Rome: Scuola Tipografica Francescani, 1966), pp. 23-32, answering Berliner, Die Weihnachtskrippe (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1955), p. 28. This book crowned Berliner’s thirty years of writings on the subject.

  2. 2

    For the original configuration of the statues, now disturbed, see Angiola Maria Romanini, Arnolfo di Cambio e lo ‘stil nuovo’ del gotico italiano (Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1980), pp. 181- 186. The elements of Arnolfo’s chapel were given a grand new setting by Sixtus V, who used them to dignify his own burial chapel. See Garry Wills, “The City-Planner Pope,” The New York Review, June 10, 1993, pp. 50-52. There is a full treatment of Sixtus’ work on the chapel by Steven F. Ostrow, Art and Spirituality in Counter-Reformation Rome (Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 5-62.

  3. 3

    Pietro Gargano, in Il Presepio (pp. 11, 16), believes this was preceded by a wood group (circa 1250) in Bologna.

  4. 4

    The association puts out a list of important presepi throughout Italy, and names forty-three significant presepi for viewing at Christmas time in Rome. The list is incomplete.

  5. 5

    The Magi fresco at Saint Mark’s was thought to be Fra Angelico’s until 1974, when John Pope-Hennessy attributed it to Benozzo. See William Hood, Fra Angelico at San Marco (Yale University Press, 1993), pp. 250, 320.

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