If you are in Italy in December you will find presepi (nativity scenes) everywhere. Every church or public space will have its own intricately decorated Christmas crib. And in private homes families will be busy building their own cribs, as common in Italy as Christmas trees are here in the UK. But in some parts of the country the creation of presepi has become an art form in itself, and they are on display all year round.
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Elaborate Nativity Scenes
Presepi (literally “cribs”) are said to date from the 13th century, when St Francis of Assisi used live animals to create a nativity scene in his cave. Animals (and people) are still occasionally used in Christmas tableaux, but most modern presepi are static. Those on public display usually have very elaborate backgrounds, incorporating ruins, water features and other elements of the countryside. They tend to show local Italian landscapes rather than the Middle Eastern backdrop you might have expected – in Naples I even saw one that had Mount Vesuvius smoking in the background.
A particular feature of presepi is the wooden figurines that are dotted around the landscape. Not just Mary, Joseph and the Wise Men but a whole host of others as well, members of the local community blending into the scene. The figures may not all be added at once: in one church in Rome I noticed that the scene appeared to be incomplete: two wise men, one camel, and no baby. Presumably the missing figures were to be added one by one, like an advent calendar.
The Distinct Art Form Of Presepi
But in southern Italy you can spot presepi at any time of year. In Naples I saw cribs in churches, in museums and even in the foyer of my hotel. And during a springtime visit to Vico del Gargano in Puglia I admired the nativity scene in the corner of the hillside church of Santa Maria Pura before visiting a small exhibition of cribs.
It was then that I realised that these are more than just nativity scenes, but a distinct art form. As well as traditional designs of all shapes and sizes, there were cribs in pots and barrels, and even a Noah’s Ark.
A Visit To Christmas Alley
Naples regards itself as the home of the presepe. So much so that the historic centre has a whole street – the Via San Gregorio Armeno – devoted to the creation of cribs, all year round. Sometimes called “Christmas Alley”, the street is full of shops and workshops displaying completed tableaux and the materials to build your own.
Part of building your own presepe is choosing the wooden figurines. Peering into the windows I was struck by the choice of different images. The religious characters and peasants were all there, but so were David Beckham and Silvio Berlusconi and several other contemporary figures. I imagined Italian families enjoying Christmas with celebrity populated cribs and was reminded how often the religious and the secular are intertwined in Italy.
100 Presepi: A Christmas Exhibition In Rome
100 Presepi takes place each year in Rome (it used to be in the Sale del Bramante but moved to the Vatican City in 2018). The exhibition began in 1976, in response to concerns that people were starting to adopt the northern European habit of decorating Christmas trees. It was thought that the art of the presepe was in danger of being lost. So artists and artisans were invited to create their own nativity scenes.
Over the years 100 Presepi has become a display of diversity. It features a mixture of traditional and non-traditional presepi, not just from Italy but from around the world. When I visited the exhibition there were several groups of (very well behaved!) primary school children looking at the tableaux. It seemed that they too had been encouraged to build and display their own creations.
One of the notable features of the exhibition was the variety of styles and artists. Some scenes used unconventional materials, including pasta, chocolate and old circuit boards, while others were works of modern art. I was surprised to see so many presepi from other countries, including Croatia and The Philippines, often incorporating local styles. It seems that, far from being lost, the tradition of the presepe has spread around the world.
A Living Presepe
The ultimate in presepi must be the presepi viventi (living presepi) that take place in many Italian cities in December. This is where local people in period costume make a procession through the town before assembling themselves into a nativity tableau. The short video clip below shows a procession in Rome to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.