• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Art & Politics of the Nativity

But Naples made the temple an essential part of the Nativity story because presepe art reached its peak in the eighteenth century, just when Naples was the center of worldwide fascination with the rediscovered ruins of nearby Paestum, Herculaneum, and Pompeii. As Giotto put Halley’s comet into his Nativity fresco, Neapolitan artisans took columns from Paestum, or scattered hay for the baby’s bed over mosaic floors copied from Herculaneum.

Despite people’s interest in the Dickensian bustle around Neapolitan tavern scenes, we should not think this reflects an original populism in the eighteenth century. That was when Bourbon rulers made Naples the hot spot for a “jet set” of aristocratic patrons and collectors. The presepi flourished in the Naples of Lord and Lady Hamilton, where Goethe gave Angelica Kauffman subjects for her paintings while trying to fight off the temptations of the high life: “Once one has stepped into the great world and accepted its ways, one has to be careful not to get trapped or even spirited away.”15

The great number of eighteenth-century Neapolitan presepi, scattered around the globe, shows that there was a broad financial base of patronage for so much work of great artistry. The patrons savored colorful depictions of the lower classes, a subject for contemplation attested in Goethe’s Naples diary: “In the midst of so many people and all their commotion, I feel peaceful and alone for the first time. The louder the uproar of the streets, the quieter I become.”16

Giuseppe Sanmartino (1720-1793) enjoyed a reputation like that of Maragliano in Genoa for life-size sculptures of the Passion of Christ—his famous recumbent figure of the dead Christ is the “hit” of the baroque gallery in the Sansevero Chapel. Scholars doubt that Maragliano himself made presepe figures. But Sanmartino had a vast output of them, and was especially good at anatomically exact figures of near-naked beggars, their rags as romantic as they are realistic. This kind of work might seem condescending now, but it had propaganda value for Sanmartino’s patrons. As foreign rulers of a culture widely different from their own, the Bourbons were anxious to show respect for local customs. In 1783, King Ferdinand IV commissioned four artists to make accurate color pictures of all regional costumes in his kingdom of Naples. These were the basis for idyllic porcelain statuettes as well as for the fantastically detailed clothing worn by presepe figures.

Guilds of gold-workers made crowns for the Magi, gifts for them to bear, jewels for the women figures. The local rectangular apron, worn from the waist like a flat rug, is shown with all the regional variants of border decoration. The crafts of the people making the figures are shown in the actions performed by the figures—shoemakers, lacemakers, glass blowers, wood carvers, blacksmiths. The regime posed as the patron of artisans as well as artists—indeed, of the whole artisan way of life. The propaganda aspect of this patronage follows (unconsciously, no doubt) the model of the “Good Government” frescos of Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena (1338-1339). On the wall where the Council of Nine sat are allegories of the Republic’s principles of justice. On flanking walls one sees the effects of unjust government—quarrels, trades neglected (except the armorer’s), buildings in ruin, villages on fire—and, on the other wall, all the fruits of a beneficent regime: herdsmen driving animals to the city, threshers and fishermen at work, happy people dancing or hunting, well-tended houses and gardens.17 One picks these figures out of the landscape just as one counts the different activities around the Neapolitan taverna.

Of course the happiness of his subjects has often been a prince’s boast. And the contrasting of good order with disorder is a tradition that antedates Ambrogio’s frescoes—e.g., in Giotto’s allegorical figures of Justice (with dancing subjects) and Injustice (with subjects suffering violence) in the Arena Chapel. Behind all such depictions lie the “two cities” of Saint Augustine.

The happy tavernieri of the presepi may seem to have no counterimage of bad rule. In fact, the host and hostess who excluded the Holy Couple are not treated as villains but as jolly revelers. The birth of the child has restored harmony to daily life. But it is not true that mal governo is absent from Neapolitan presepi. In the theology of presepi, the ruined temple is a sign of the deep disorders cured by the arrival of the true ruler, the King whom three kings adore. The Bourbons were promoting their religious establishment as well as their benign political policies. The mark of mal governo is ruin and dilapidation, as with Giotto’s Injustice or Ambrogio’s scarred landscape. The contrast between the evil old dispensation and the idyllic new one is emphasized in the larger units of the Nativity story by the image of Herod slaughtering the Innocents, played off against the image of the flight into Egypt. The bare gospel account allows one to think of that flight as an ordeal. But the artistic instinct for contrast with Herod’s reign led to images of peaceful passage through the countryside—a tradition that reached its extreme statement in Caravaggio’s entertainment of the fleeing couple with a violin concert (the painting is in Rome’s Doria-Pamphili gallery).

The angels in Neapolitan presepi are not, usually, musicians. They bear heavenly incense to make sweet the place on earth where the baby appears. They tumble decorously down the sky bearing exquisite silver thuribles. The angels on the Metropolitan Museum’s annual tree are good examples. So is the string of two dozen angels—diminishing upward in size to give a vast heavenly perspective—in the best-known presepe on permanent display in Naples. This is the Cuciniello presepe (named for its architect-donor) that fills one end of a large room in the Certosa di San Martino. When we were there in 1995, just before Christmas, busload after busload of schoolchildren was sluiced through the room in a never-ending stream. It is unfortunate that they were not allowed to linger in front of the large plate glass to see the lights work their magic through an entire cycle—night descending, the angels’ light striking the sleeping shepherds, the star appearing, then day returning, to reveal all the tavernieri at their work and play.

The Cuciniello presepe is considered the Big Enchilada of the Certosa collection, often photographed and praised. But other rooms have the best existing collection of authentic eighteenth-century figures by Sanmartino and other major presepe artists (Giuseppe de Luca, Giuseppe Gori, the Celebranos). This collection moved Pietro Gargano, in his recent book, to call the Certosa “the temple of the presepio.”

Neapolitans are so conscious of their reputation, good and ill, as presepisti that the local branch of the Friends of the Presepio is more active than the national center in Rome. It opposes the shoddy workmanship of Via San Gregorio Armeno with a manual of authentic presepe-making, each aspect of it described by a modern master—the temple, the artisan’s tools, the ceramic figures, the miniature foodstuffs.^18 The Friends’ annual exhibit of modern presepi, held in the Castelnuovo at Christmas time, was the best we saw anywhere, and it issues the best catalog. The 1995 show, the Friends’ tenth, was mounted in conjunction with another one held in Germany (at Traunstein), and the catalog showed photographs from both exhibits. 19 My favorite in the show was Luciano Testa’s mounting of an old poem in four miniature dioramas on a revolving stand: devils try to prevent the journey of the Holy Couple to Bethlehem and vent their rage at being foiled. Testa’s sculptured red devils, anatomically correct, were both comic and moving. (See illustration above.)

The presepi are well served by the books I have listed as still on sale in their respective countries. They all have fine illustrations. The most sumptuous are Gennaro Borelli’s two volumes. In 1990, he published a collection of Massimo Listri’s stunning pictures of presepe figures (many from the Cuciniello presepe). In 1991, he published a broader survey, with equally brilliant photography. The two books are boxed as a set and sell in Italian stores for about $75.00. Two good surveys of presepi‘s world-wide popularity, but with special emphasis on the countries of their origin, are Pietro Gargano’s for Italy and Pablo Martínez-Palomera’s for Spain. Teodoro Fittipaldi, who has written a great deal on the Neapolitan presepi, gives a good introduction to figures photographed by Giusepp Gaetz and Ugo Pons Salabelle. A similar service for Genoan presepi is Venite Adoremus, with essays by art historians Maria Clelia Galassi and Giulio Sommariva.

Though he is principally a scholar of Genoan presepi, Sommariva also collaborated on the catalog of the early Neapolitan presepe at the convent of the Brignoline Sisters, Il Presepe Riscoperto. Pietro Gasperini’s book is the catalog of the Bregna museum, on sale there. The Angel Tree has photographs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Loretta Hines Howard Collection of Neapolitan figurines. (See illustrations on pages 75 and 81.)

The great gap in our presepi hunt of 1995 was Sicily, where an old school of workmanship is centered at Caltagirone. Though we saw examples of Sicilian presepi in several collections, a thorough pursuit of the art should—and will in the future—include Caltagirone. The hunt can never quite be over, since important artifacts are always being restored—last year, those at Genoa’s Palazzo Rosso and at Naples’s Santa Maria in Portico. Many presepi are hard to see. Giulio Sommariva told me that small Genoan churches with fine presepi are afraid to expose them because thieves know their value, and the churches do not have full-time guards, unlike museums.

Still, persistence is repaid. On our last day in Naples, my wife and I went at Mass time (the only time it is open) to Santa Maria in Parto (Holy Mary in Delivery). Perched on top of a modern apartment building (backed up against a cliff), the church must be reached by elevator—after ringing a doorbell on the street for admission.

We were disappointed, on entering, to see a cheap modern presepe heavily populated with plastic figures—but it soon became clear that this was for the children, to point to and identify different aspects of the scene. Asked about the famous presepe, the priest took us into a little hallway between the church choir and sacristy, where five kneeling figures, almost life-size, are the only part left of a huge presepe complex commissioned by the beloved Neapolitan poet, Jacopo Sannazzaro, to illustrate his poem on the Nativity.20

Giovanni da Nola, the sixteenth-century sculptor in both marble and wood, with help from his assistants, created a grand scene with seventy or so figures, all in wood, with colors and gilt now faded. Dozens of the statues were stolen, lost, forgotten. These five were unearthed after World War II, restored, and displayed in the Castelnuovo. Now they gather dust in their dim hallway, where my wife photographed them while the priest went out to say Mass. (See page 80.)

The fact that the surviving figures are the critical ones, on which the master himself worked, suggests they were deliberately hidden, at some point, from depredators, then forgotten over the years, to be turned up by accident—survivors of nameless ordeals, their own flight from a slaughtering Herod. They are very powerful in their concentration. Joseph’s hand is taut, intertwined with the robe on his chest, as he gazes at the mystery. Naples, city of presepi, hides one of the world’s greatest presepi in a hallway. The hunt goes on.

  1. 15

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey (1786-1788), translated by W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer (North Point Press, 1982), pp. 213- 214.

  2. 16

    Goethe, Italian Journey, p. 202.

  3. 17

    Maria Monaco Donato, “Gli effetti del buon governo,” in Enrico Castelnuovo, Ambrogio Lorenzetti: Il Buon Governo (Milano: Electa, 1995), pp. 148-311.

  4. 19

    X Mostra di arti presepiale (Associazione Italiana Amici del Presepio, Sezione di Napoli, 1995).

  5. 20

    Sannazaro’s wonderful Renaissance tomb is in the church’s dim choir. It is flanked by large statues of Apollo and Minerva. When their presence shocked some parishioners, large new names were chiseled under them: DAVID and JUDITH. The priest, after he finished Mass, explained this deception of the pious and had a good laugh over it.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print