The Art & Politics of the Nativity

The Angel Tree: A Christmas Celebration (1993)

by Linn Howard and 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 and 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…

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