One of my favorite Neapolitan traditions is the presepio. Although the presepio is a representation of the Holy Family at the birth of Jesus, and is therefore part of the Christmas celebration, in Naples one sees them not only at Christmastime, but throughout the year. In Naples time is a continuum; all events co-exist. One of my favorite walks is on Via San Gregorio Armeno, where artisans are working on the figures in the presepio at all times. This street has been dubbed “Christmas Alley”, which I find annoying. First of all, it is not an alley, but a via in the part of Naples that dates past Roman times to its Greek founding. And, moreover, the presepio is not a mere seasonal ornament, but a part of Neapolitan life.
Below is an article by Anita Sanseverino who is an expert on Neapolitan traditions. She recently gave presentations on the presepio for the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum and the American-Italian Cultural Roundtable, both in New York City. Anita elucidates the history and meaning of the presepio beautifully.
Il Presepio Napoletano
By Anita Sanseverino
In the Italian language, the word ”Presepio” means “Crib.” Now we use the word to refer not just to the manger, but to the entire edifice and all of the scenes. It is not considered a “presepio” when only the figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child are represented. That is the nativity or as it was referred to in the past: “The Sacred Mystery.”
There were representations of the birth of Christ as early as the 2nd century A.D. but the type of nativities and presepi that we see today are said to have had their origins with St. Francis of Assisi. In the year 1223, St. Francis took a manger, which was used to feed animals, filled it with hay, placed a few live animals around it, and had a Mass celebrated in front of it. This representation did not have any figures of the Holy Family. That came later.
Later, three dimensional scenes were created. The oldest one still in existence in Italy is in marble created by Arnolfo Di Cambio in the 1300’s and can still be seen at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Later, in other places in Italy and in Europe, other artists created the expanded scenes. At one point, the Jesuits took charge of the Presepio tradition, in order to promote the teachings of the Catholic Church.
It is important to not that the Golden Age of the Presepio took place in Naples, Italy when Carlo di Borbone, who developed a passion for the presepio, became the King of Naples in 1735.
Until this point, the presepio was the domain of the church. With King Carlo, it moved from the church to the place; from the palace to the grand homes of the nobility; until this tradition reached the general populace in the 19th century.
At the time of Carlo’s reign, the city of Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of Naples, so the city experienced a flourishing art and culture community, and because the King himself developed such a passion for the presepio, it became one of the greatest expressions of Neapolitan art.
Eventually, an entire industry of artists and artisans grew around the making of the presepi – this included artisans who specialized in specific items. There were artists who were masters at creating figures of animals, exact replicas of musical instruments, miniature fruits and other foods, and of course, the faces of the human figures. No detail was overlooked in order to make every scene as realistic as possible. The King’s own presepio grew to include about 6,000 pieces, which were displayed in the Royal Apartments and the public was invited in to view this spectacular scene.
The unique aspect of the Neapolitan presepio was its representation of Naples itself. Their genius for the portrayal of the full range of the human condition is evident in the figures themselves – and the scenes are set in Naples, not Bethlehem – so that Naples, in effect, becomes part of this monumental event in human history. The landscape, and all the various types of labor are represented. Daily life in Naples is reflected in the riot of colors, the crowded scenes of the city, the marketplace, the vendors, the musicians: not only were there shepherds and Wise Men, there were people of every level of society, going about their daily business.
And at the pinnacle of these street scenes, sits the Holy Family – that Sacred Mystery – and they are shown sitting under a broken temple, rather than being portrayed in a stable or cave – because this broken temple Signifies the Triumph of Christianity over Paganism. But the genius for portraying scenes of daily life in such an exciting way enables one to feel the liveliness and almost hear the noise of the city! At the same time, you can see in the faces of even the improvised characters, that the artists have given them a dignity, a purpose, a sense that they too are as important in this event, as are the three Wise Men.
They have shown by integrating the full range of society with the story of the birth of Christ, king of the world, coming to us by way of poor parents, born in a simple hut, that rich or poor, healthy or lame, we are all alike in Christ – that a person’s worth comes not from noble birth, but that all human beings have dignity because they are creations of God. This is the message inherent in the Christmas story and the Neapolitan Presepio portrays this message in the most creative and human terms.
Here are some photographs of presepi that Jim and I took during our stay in Naples last fall.
Below are scenes from one of the presepi in Amalfi. This one is built into a fountain and again, may be seen whenever one visits Amalfi. It shows the whole spectacle of a village, high and low, rich and poor: