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.
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.
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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 they have 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.