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).

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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.

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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.

People sometimes wonder where the presepi get their musicians, exotic animals, and huge throngs. One important source was Florence’s celebration of Epiphany, the Three Kings riding through Florence with all the grandeur of the Medici court—dwarfs, monkeys, actual visitors from the Orient. The parade could have as many as seven hundred horsemen. The pageantry that fills three walls of Benozzo’s Magi chapel (1459) probably understates the scale of the procession that wended its way to San Marco on the feast of the Epiphany. The physical course of it is referred to in the symbolism of the three walls that make up the chapel’s inner geography. Cristina Acidini Luchinat puts the significance of the wall paintings in this compendious chart.6

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The later presepi differentiate the Magi culturally, and outfit them and their attendants with elaborate costumes and jewelry. The source for this was Epiphany processions in general, but especially the Florentine one, celebrated in paintings, sermons, and poems.7 One painting that reflects the Florentine procession—Botticini’s Adoration of the Magi (circa 1495)—has been put in the children’s section of the Art Institute of Chicago, where visitors are asked to count the musicians and the animals and to find the kings’ crowns—games children still play before actual presepi in Italy. 8

Another Florentine contribution to the iconography of the Magi is the traveling star. In the procession at Florence, a group actually preceded the kings, holding a star up high for them to follow. The introduction of the traveling star was made by the Florentine Giotto, who in 1303-1305 painted the biblical star as Halley’s comet, which had appeared in 1302.9 The star over every modern Italian presepe is a stylized comet.

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p class=”initial”>Though early presepi followed Francis’s view that Jesus was born in a cave, regional differences developed on this subject—some placed the Nativity in a hut or a ruined temple. There was a tradition in Florence that showed Jesus born outside all shelter. Putting the Madonna in a wilderness without shelter reflected, among other things, the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), an important patron of Florence.10

The presepe tradition is kept alive in Florence by three good examples—a permanent one at the Certosa dei Galluzzo, and seasonal ones at San Miniato al Monte and in the crypt of Santa Croce. This last scene is especially well done. The Nativity takes place in a right-foreground landscape. In a left-distance cityscape, three-dimensional models of the Florentine Duomo, Baptistry, and Palazzo Vecchio are seen on the skyline. When lighting brings on night, snow begins falling on Florence. When the angels appear in the sky, the piazza in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (the very place the Medici procession passed through) is lit with unseen festivities. As my wife and I returned to our hotel on Christmas Eve we saw the Palazzo Vecchio outlined with fires—tubs of burning oil on every battlement and casement, lit only the one night of the year and allowed to gutter out toward dawn. Life and presepi echo each other endlessly in Italy.

4. Genoa

Genoa is generally considered second only to Naples in preserving an artistic tradition of presepi. It has one of the greatest marble presepe groups in Tomaso Orsolini’s altar-front at the Church of the Gesù. Created in 1626, it preserves the idea of an open-air birth of the child; but in this case angels hover over the scene, holding a canopy to shelter the birth—and the canopy is the altar table.11 This reverses the use of Nativities as altar pieces (placed above the consecration area), which also equate the Nativity with the miracle of transubstantiation on the altar. The birth takes place, here, beneath the consecration of Mass, a fugitive event, as temporary as the angels’ shelter.

This open-air birth may, as in Florence, reflect the depiction of the Nativity in processions. Genoa had a tradition of processions with wagons (cassacce processionali) that carried polychrome wood sculptures of scriptural scenes—often the Passion of Jesus, for penitential days. The acknowledged master sculptor of such scenes was Anton Maria Maragliano, two of whose Depositions from the Cross can be seen in Genoa’s churches.12

Workmen from Maragliano’s studio became well-known sculptors of presepe figures in wood, often with ceramic heads and hands. The origin of these presepi in the processions meant that the birth of Jesus was treated, often, as one in a sequence of Nativity “mysteries,” flanked by the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Presentation in the Temple. On the cassacce these would be separate groups passing by the spectator; but in a limited space, in church or palace, the same figures could be reclothed and repostured to conduct the story from, say, Christmas (December 25) to Epiphany (January 6). To accomplish this, the craftsmen in wood took to making “flexibles” (snodabili), jointed wood figures that could be arranged in different attitudes. The Mary figure, for instance, could be shown kneeling for the Annunciation, standing for the Visitation, lying down for the Nativity, and seated for the reception of the Magi. A Magus figure could ride a camel, then stand as he brings his gift, then kneel as he offers the gift.

The precious collection of presepi figures in Genoa’s Museum of Giannettino Luxoro shows unclothed figures, revealing the wood craftsmanship of snodabili, contrasting them with nineteenth-century Neapolitan “flexibles” that used metal bars to connect the moving parts. The museum has a complete Presentation in the Temple episode. The displays contrast “refined” Genoan figures with “populist” Neapolitan figures of the lower classes. It is easy to think of Genoa’s figures as more aristocratic than those of Naples—an oversimplification, as we shall see. For one thing, Fausta Guelfi points out that the confraternities in nineteenth-century processions expressed a Genovese piety that made authorities uneasy. Even here there was tension between official and spontaneous devotion. Nonetheless, wealthy patrons did collect the work of Maragliano and his disciples, and the other main display of Genoan figures is in the grand rooms of the Palazzo Rosso (closed at Christmas in 1995 for rehousing in glass cases, though we had seen the collection in the 1980s).

5. Lombardy (Milan and Bergamo)

Even before Florence, Milan had grand processions at Epiphany, reflecting the fact that the bodies of the Three Kings were supposedly housed in the church of Saint Eustorgius until the twelfth century, when Frederick Barbarossa seized the bodies and sent them back to Cologne as part of his self-authentication as Holy Roman Emperor.13 The huge catafalque that contained the bodies is still in the church, empty, but an adjacent altar holds part of one arm, sent back by the Archbishop of Cologne in this century. The Milanese are still chary of Magi thieves, as I found when I stuck my face near the glass reliquary with the arm. This set off an ear-splitting alarm (though I had come as close or closer to many art treasures in this and other churches). Luckily, the priest who had to come out and shut off the alarm told me more about the church than the guidebooks had.

By the eighteenth century, Lombardy was known for its subtly painted cutout figures. A good example, by the leading cartone artist, Francesco Londonio, is on permanent display in Saint Mark’s church (though an even finer one is in a side room at Genoa’s Luxoro museum). Treasures acquired for the cult of the Magi include a fifteenth- century wood relief, of black figures in a gold setting, done by a Nuremberg artist. The relief is now in the Church of the Holy Apostles and Saint Nazarus.

Bergamo was known in the nineteenth century for two factories making plaster-cast presepe figures—not great works of art, but from a disappearing world: plastic drove out plaster in this century, closing both factories. A priest who was interested in preserving the presepi of his youth founded a museum, Il Museo del Presepio, in Bregna, a suburb of Bergamo. Though the priest, Giacomo Piazzoli, opened the museum’s doors in 1974, he had been collecting presepi for a decade before that. Word of his work brought in gifts of more presepi from around the world, including some fine Polish specimens (Polish crèches are set in the lower stories of ornate Oriental church towers). These presepi, as well as Monsignor Piazzoli’s work with the poor, prompted Pope John Paul II to send the museum a beautiful Sicilian presepe.

The Bregna museum encourages the recovery of ancient craftsmanship—as in the exquisite biblical dioramas created in the 1950s by Nino Pirlato. Inventive use of the past is symbolized in Antonio Mazzeo’s 1965 figurines, whose pose and costume are taken from the Ravenna mosaic of the Magi in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. Other treasures include matched presepi for each of the three Sundays of Advent—showing the Annunciation, the Visitation, and a very pregnant Mary lying ready to deliver. (The cult of Santa Maria in Parto, popular with pregnant young women, has had a strong influence on presepi).14 The Museum of the Presepio is open year-round, though one should call ahead for its seasonal hours.

6. Naples

The Neapolitan production of presepi dwarfs all other regional manufacture, so much so that one can see large Neapolitan presepi of high artistic quality all over Italy—indeed all over the world, as the Metropolitan Museum’s Neapolitan Christmas tree demonstrates every year. Permanently installed and exhibited Neapolitan presepi on the grand scale are to be found in Bregna, in Genoa (at the Convent of the Brignoline Sisters), in Rome (at Santa Maria in Via, and the Basilica of Saints Cosmos and Damian in the Forum).

But none of these exports gives an accurate idea of the scale and range of year-round work on presepi in Naples. Via San Gregorio Armeno is famous for its rows and rows of shops selling (mainly cheap) presepe ingredients—figurines, landscapes, inn structures, miniature fruits and vegetables. One merchant at the center of this thoroughfare attracted journalistic attention in 1995 by including caricatures of Sil-vio Berlusconi and other politicians among his pastori (the generic term for all presepe figures except the sacred persons). This “populist” approach is what many people think of as most characteristic of Neapolitan presepi.

In fact, Naples did cultivate those parts of the scene called la taverna—the inn that rejected the holy pair, with all its denizens and surrounding shops, squares, and trades. All the ordinary life of a (mainly nineteenth-century) village is depicted, in ways that tend to swallow up the Nativity scene itself. The huge round presepe set in the middle of the Galleria Umberto I takes the circumambulator past herds of sheep and cattle and goats, thronged vegetable markets, bloody butcher shops, playing children, and flirting youths. One could actually pass without noticing the crowded little scene where straw lies ready for the baby in front of the ox and the ass.

But the ox and ass are couched among the columns of a classical ruin—and that is as important an aspect of Neapolitan presepi as the tavern itself. At Genoa and Rome, Jesus was born in a cave. Elsewhere in a shed. At Florence on the open ground. But a true Neapolitan presepe puts the birth in a classical temple. This reflects the Golden Legend tale that the Ara Pacis in Rome crumbled on the night of Christ’s birth, signifying an end to the whole preceding order of things. Renaissance painters often drew on that legend—or on the cognate myth that the Jewish dispensation signified in Herod’s Temple was undermined by the birth. Painters sometimes conflated the stories, creating an amalgam of Jewish and Roman temple architecture.

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 (Eighteenth-century Naples had a flourishing tradition of still-life painting, which was reflected in the sumptuous spreads of tiny fish, meats, fruit, and vegetables near the taverna.) 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.

This Issue

December 19, 1996