Creches in Italy
Every country has it's own tradition, and artists draw on local styles, traditions
and art forms when creating nativity scenes.
Presepio (Creche) in Tyrol, like those in most northern European countries, are generally carved in wood. During the Renaissance, figures produced by wood-carvers in Tyrol and Cologne were in great demand at the Italian courts. During the 17th century in South Tyrol, Nordic Baroque was fused with Italian elements. Figures were mainly of wood, some with moveable limbs, but also puppets with faces of wax and hats of wool or straw were produced. Neustift monastery near Brixen has a Presepio which dates to 1621. It was built at the request of Abbot Mark Hausser with twenty figures some of which are 50 cm high. Slightly damaged during bombing in World War II, it was restored and can still be admired today.
Moreover the Diocesan Museum in Brixen has forty six dioramas, mostly 18th and 19th century wood carvings and mainly the work of the Probst family. They consist of a total of some five hundred exquisitely carved figures set in backgrounds of amazing architectural harmony.
In the 19th century, besides the traditional wood, Presepio figures were also made with papier mache, paper cut-outs, stucco and wax. Famous of this period, a wooden Presepio made by Karl Sigmund Moser, acquired by the National Museum in Munich, in which an amphitheater in different styles ranging from Gothic to Rococo, reconstructs a spectacular imaginary Jerusalem.
In the region of Genoa the Presepio tradition developed later than in other regions of Italy and, as elsewhere, it was connected with the work of the Jesuit Fathers and the activity of certain confraternities with special devotion to Christmas traditions. Here, as in Naples and Sicily, the Presepio was built first of all in churches and then spread to the homes of aristocratic families.
Although complex, the Presepio in Liguria is far less “pagan” more in keeping with the Gospel narrative in its representation of the Mystery of Bethlehem than Nativity Scenes in other parts of Italy. The scenery is extremely simple and develops horizontally, with a singular lack of depth.
In this region, we do not find the wooden puppet with head and limbs in terracotta so popular in Naples and elsewhere. The typical Baroque Presepio in Genoa has carved wooden figures and the most famous wood carver was Anton Maria Maragliano.
After 1289, the year in which Arnolfo di Cambio worked his statues for the Basilica of St Mary Major in what is considered the very first round representation of the Nativity Scene, we have to wait for three centuries to find reliable information about the existence of Presepio in Rome. In fact in 1581 a Spanish Fransican Juan Franciso Nuno, charged with gathering information on the tradition of the Presepio in Rome, speaks of various Nativity Scenes found in churches and monasteries, particularly the Presepio at the Aracoeli Church which still draws great crowds, with its famous statue of the Holy Infant adorned with precious stones, carved, according to tradition, by an unnamed Franciscan friar out of a branch of an olive tree taken from the Garden of Olives in Jerusalem.
In Rome as in Naples, Genoa and Sicily, the Presepio spread from churches to patrician homes with artificial and spectacular constructions aimed to provoke more amazement than devotion, produced by all manner of artists including famous Bernini who made one for Prince Barberini.
18th century Presepios include a beautiful example at the Poor Clare sisters’ church of St Lawrence with five magnificent figures, and others in Santa Maria in Trastevere and at the convent church of Santa Cecilia. In the 19th century the Presepio spread to all levels of society with the production of inexpensive figures in terracotta. Some were built in church porches, or balconies with natural scenery and the sky as a background. One of the most visited is the Presepio built by the city’s maintenance workmen, or garbage collectors, near St Peter’s which is visited every year by Pope John Paul II. But the most famous of all is the giant Nativity Scene built every year during Advent since 1982 at the request of Pope John Paul by Vatican workmen in St Peter’s Square. The figures, 18th century larger than life, were made for Saint Vincent Pallotti and donated by the Pallottine Fathers to the Pope. The Presepio is opened on Christmas eve and one of the first visitors is the Pope himself. It is taken down after the Season and the statues are carefully stored for the coming Christmas.
In Naples around the mid 16th century, medieval symbols were put aside and the modern Presepio was born. According to tradition merit goes to Saint Gaetano from Thiene who was enraptured by the mystery of Christmas and built a large Presepio with wooden figures dressed in the clothes of the times for Christmas 1534 at the Santa Maria della Stalletta oratory beside the hospital for the incurable.
After this numerous Presepio were built in churches and convents all over Naples, but it was not until the next century that the Presepio with mobile figures appeared. The first example was produced by the Scolopi Fathers for Christmas 1627. Also worthy of mention a Presepio in Santa Maria in Portico, commissioned by Duchess Orsini, and a Presepio built by the Bottega del Ceraso for the church of St Gregory Armeno. However, the golden age of the art of the Presepio in Naples was the 18th century. With Charles III in fact the city, once again the capital of an independent region, was renovated and took its place among the famous cities of Europe, experiencing a flourish of culture and art, of which the Presepio was to be one of the most splendid expressions.It was truly a fever of the Presepio which took over the whole city of Naples in 1700, even the King. Charles III, who had a passion for mechanics and clever hands, encouraged and personally directed court architects and scenery producers as well as building himself a Presepio in the royal apartments. Queen Maria Amelia and her ladies in waiting made the clothes for the figures with material and minute patterns especially produced in the royal fabric factory at St. Leucio. Nobles and rich bourgeois families, anxious to keep up with the King, competed with their own Presepio. The most beautiful Presepio were rewarded with a visit by the King, a much sought after recognition. The citizens were allowed into noble homes to admire the costly productions.
In the typical 18th century Neapolitan Presepio, the Nativity Scene stands on a rock and is set inside the ruins of a church; the whole scene is inevitably overshadowed by the outline of the Vesuvius volcano. Other distinctive elements are a Saracen tower, a busy market, a tavern where Mary and Joseph were refused a room, but above all the Neapolitan people who crowd the scene of the Nativity, almost suffocating it with a profusion of colors and scenes, poverty and nobility, comic figures and drama, animals, local and exotic, a procession of lame, deformed and blind contrasting the rich entourage of slaves and rich gifts following the Three Magi. This varied humanity triumphs over the Gospel story, the Nativity withdraws to the background, what counts is the spectacle, farce, drama portrayed all around it.
The typical shepherd in the Neapolitan is made of straw and wire, with wooden limbs, head in polychrome terracotta and eyes in crystal. Animals, big and small, are all in wood.
A fundamental, if not dominant component of the 18th century Presepio in Naples, is the market with all manner of wares, an explosion of shapes and colors. Together with the Hosteria, another characteristic element, there is always the market with its fruit and vegetables, hams, fish, shellfish, salamis and sausages, cheeses, olives, the butcher’s shop with beef and pork, rabbit and game, pizza, macaroni, eggs etc. In a town as poor as Naples at that time, afflicted by insatiable hunger, this gastronomic profusion, an orgy of food, submerges the Nativity Scene and distorts it, acquiring the significance of the revenge of the people over its age old enemy hunger, the revenge of an hallucinating imaginary dream-world where hunger is no more and food is abundant for all. Almost a sort of transfer: as if once a year at Christmas time in front of the Presepio, the ragged people of Naples are completely satisfied.
Examples of 18th century Neapolitan Presepio still extant today thanks to generous donations, are found in Museums in Italy and elsewhere. The most famous and one of the largest is the Cuciniello Presepio donated to the city of Naples by author Michele Cuciniello who died in 1899. The Presepio is kept at the Museo della Certosa di San Martino, on the Vomero hill; a rival for beauty and richness of personages, is the Presepio at the Royal Palace of Caserta. Not to be forgotten the Presepio in the Museum of Avellino, another in the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Rome, as well as Presepio collections at the National museum in Munich and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and among private collections those of the Leonetti Counts and the Catello family.
From its first appearance papier mache or cartapesta has always been a typical element of popular customs and traditions in Lecce. Although the first works in cartapesta date to the 16th century, only in the 19th century we have reliable information with regard to the school of Master Pietro dei Cristi, given this name precisely because he made religious statues and Presepio figures. At the close of the century it was mainly the barbers, short of customers, who worked with cartapesta and the barber shop was also a workshop for figures. The figures were sold at the Fair of the Puppets and Shepherds, still held in Lecce today on December 13, St Lucy’s Day. Cartapesta is made of paper made of rags (not containing cellulose) reduced to pulp, mixed with flour and then boiled in poisoned water to prevent paper-worm. The mixture is laid in several layers of varying thickness according to the size of the figure. The statues are modelled exclusively by hand the most delicate parts being finished off with a hot iron. When the statue is ready it is put to dry in the sun without any artificial procedure and then painted.
In Sicily, as elsewhere, the Presepio developed with the Jesuits under the direct influence of the Neapolitan model from which it differs in that it is more sober and essential, with a pronounced religious character, at times pervaded with intense drama thanks to the presence of original elements obviously derived from puppet theatre. The oldest and most famous Presepio is found in the Church of St Bartholomew at Scicli near Ragusa with painted wooden statues about 50 cm in height. In Sicily too, the Presepio became a feature of sumptuous interior decoration and a work of art. Every noble family had its Presepio with wax figures dressed in elegant clothes exposed in a sort of glass showcase during the Christmas season. Besides wax, a number of materials were used to fashion the personages: coral, copper, cork, ivory, mother of pearl, alabaster, sea shells, lava stone. Typical and exclusive, decorations with branches of orange and mandarin trees, grapes and Indian figs. Trapani was one of the towns where the production of Presepio flourished most in the 17th and 18th centuries, thanks to Giovanni Antonio mater, whose beautiful figures carved in wood, copied by many an artist, can still be seen today at Museums in Trapani, Palermo and also in Munich, in Germany.