Sacred and Profane – The art of the Neapolitan Nativity scene

When, in a remote Italian village, Saint Francis of Assisi put a baby in a crib well padded with hay, under the watchful eye of an ox and a donkey, he couldn’t have possibly foreseen what his idea to re-enact the Nativity scene would have led to. It was the year 1223 and the first Nativity scene, as the legend goes, was invented.

The first Nativity scene. Source:

The first Nativity scene. Source:

Nativity scene, crib, manger scene, presepe (from the latin word for manger): there are many ways to describe what has been invented by the Saint almost 800 years ago. Children from every corner of Europe take part to plays in their schools; villages gather around their main square, erecting a makeshift hut to destine as a stable; and, finally, we have the statues.

The real Italian Nativity scene, and the Neapolitan very much so, is made of statues. The “basic kit”, the one that I used to assemble when I was a boy under the watchful eye of my dog (who, inexplicably, loved to chew St. Joseph if ever she had the occasion) was made of Mary, said Joseph, the Baby in the crib (to be added only on the 25th, because historic accuracy is important), the two beasts and the Three Wise Men arriving in convoy on January 6th, which was also the last day of the holidays and, therefore, the moment when the presepe was due to return in his box in the attic (I always felt quite sorry for the Wise Men who made such a long trek only to be granted one lowly day of glory on the lounge shelf).

The Neapolitan version of the presepe is comparable to my beginners’ kit by the same way with which a Fiat Panda can be compared to a supersonic jet plane. The Nativity scenes carved out at the foothills of the Vesuvius are the result of about three centuries of constant evolution, a mélange of sacred and profane, following a tradition that is indeed 300 years old but that can retrace its pedigree to the Roman times, when Neapolitan artisans were renown for their skills in preparing statues of the lares, guardian divinities whom the Roman believed were their ancestors.

This is how the Neapolitan do it when they get at it: this is a real-life replica of piazza San Gaetano.

This is how the Neapolitan do it when they get at it: this is a real-life replica of piazza San Gaetano.

The Neapolitan presepe doesn’t show the baby Jesus in a stable that can be associated, even remotely, to Roman Palestine; what it shows, instead, is a more urban scenery, for Jesus was born in town and that town was, obviously, Napoli. It can either be a ruined pagan temple or a whole reproduction of a part of the city, but the location is undoubtedly Southern Italian.

Historical awareness isn’t this Nativity scene’s forte either: it’s not uncommon, for example, to see Christian characters – monks, popes – on stage, right in the thick of the action and I’ve been told that one particularly large presepe includes a house where, placed on a nicely sculpted cupboard, lies… yet another presepe in miniature!

The Magi on display at Ulderico Pinfildi, via San Biagio dei Librai

The Magi on display at Ulderico Pinfildi, via San Biagio dei Librai


Presepe carving can be a high-end work of art.

There’s always a strong dichotomy, in this kind of representation of the Nativity: good and bad characters are always present, but they are never mixed: like in a B-movie, it’s extremely simple to distinguish your goodies – the Holy Family, the adoring shepherds, the Wise Men – from the baddies: Satan himself might turn up, usually tucked away in a cave below the centerpiece of the scene, as in the example below, still awaiting its inhabitants.

imageSometimes the bad side is not so accentuated but, still, it’s clearly visible. This is the case of the tavern, where unsavory figures, oblivious to the spectacle unfolding nearby, keep on drinking and laughing coarsely. The tavern is also one of the places that bumped Mary and Joseph off during their quest for a lodging in Betlehem that ended up with them taking possess of a stable (or, if in Napoli, of a tumbledown Roman temple, of course).

imageThe panoply of characters crowding the Neapolitan presepe is, once again, a lot larger and more interesting than the few, stereotyped figures I had at my disposal. However, the presepe napoletano starts with a loss: the ox and donkey are nowhere to be seen (can it be that the donkey stopped for a moment too long outside a Tesco processing facility?). They are replaced, in the animal world, by herds of sheep and, sometimes, by the occasional goat, lonely and isolates for goats are symbols of Satan and should therefore belong to the naughty half of the scene.

Casual conversation abounds while the action unfolds

Casual conversation abounds while the action unfolds

The Magi, for once, often balloon from three to four, the fourth being a female, and are usually joined by an entourage of moors, all lavishly dressed and looking dapper. It’s easy to see, in such an extravagant convoy, the rich merchant – Turkish, or Arab – that used to visit Napoli in a distant past. Around them, not looking in the slightest surprised, is a crowd of shepherds, fishmongers, drunkards, layabouts and industrious women on whose shoulders, it seems, has fallen the burden of running their families.

The level of detail is bewildering.

The level of detail is bewildering.

Hidden in the crowd, and usually in the bad half of the stage, is a monk. This is yet another apparent contradiction of the Neapolitan presepe – how could Jesus, still 30-something years away from establishing Christianity, be looked at by a monk dressed as a franciscan friar? – but it gets even more exhilarating when you notice that, usually, the monk is busy having… a number two.

imageAnd this is only the start of a seemingly unstoppable charge of weirdos! There we have the pazzariello, one of Napoli’s oldest itinerant jobs, a man dressed in vivid colours, covered in amulets, whose job was to bring good luck (for a fee, obviously). Over there we have Pulcinella, one of the main characters of the city’s puppetry scene. And then we have politicians, footballers (Maradona above all), Michael Schumacher clutching a sign reading “I’ll make it through this one”, PM Renzi holding a gelato as the Economist portrayed him a few months ago… The Neapolitan presepe has space for all of them, all witnessing the most important event of the Christian year, all reduced to spectators of the drama regardless of their VIP status.

A group of Pazzarielli next to... a spaghetti measurer, of all things (that doesn't go in the presepe, by the way).

A group of Pazzarielli next to… a spaghetti measurer, of all things (that doesn’t go in the presepe, by the way).

Pulcinellas by the bucketful...

Pulcinellas by the bucketful…

...And politicians and other VIPs

…And politicians and other VIPs

Only one person, in this noisy, colourful chaos, seems oblivious to the whole charade. It’s the sleepy shepherd: tucked away in a corner, wrapped in some soft hay, he sleeps so contently that you’d expect to hear him snoring.

His name is Benino and, according to the myth, he’s not sleeping because of some rebellious instinct: rather, he’s dreaming the presepe and it’s thanks to him that we can see it all because, as the Gospels say, the angels announced Jesus’ birth to a group of sleeping shepherds.

So, if you happen to see little Benino having a good nap… please don’t wake him up.

This entry was posted in Europe, Faith, Italy, Napoli, Overlooked locations and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sacred and Profane – The art of the Neapolitan Nativity scene

  1. richandalice says:

    I had no idea about any of this! Of course, being Jewish, I wouldn’t. Still, fascinating and entertaining.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Well Rich, Christmas has lost most of its religious sense, at least for me (shouldn’t we be good men and women all year ’round?). But it involves some nice food, and that’s good in my books. Actually, all religious celebrations involving food are good in my books!


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