I first discovered presepi in Naples a few years ago. These are individually designed nativity scenes, a traditional Christmas decoration in Italian homes, but also found in churches and other public places. I thought of them as a southern Italian custom, but that was before I discovered the “100 Presepi” exhibition in Rome. (You can read more about the history and tradition of presepi in my earlier post.)
The 100 Presepi Exhibition
100 Presepi takes place each year in the Sale del Bramante on the Piazza del Popolo. 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.
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Traditional Nativity Scenes
Many of the presepi on display were traditional scenes, placing the Nativity in an Italian setting. It was quite startling to see a Christmas tableau with a backdrop of Roman ruins!
Non Traditional Presepi
One of the notable features of the exhibition was the variety of styles and artists. Some scenes used unconventional materials, including 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.
Presepi in Churches
Later I saw several nativity scenes in churches around Rome. One of them 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. It doesn’t look as if the old traditions are going to disappear just yet.