Naples: A Street-life Nativity
In a bustling narrow alleyway in downtown Naples, Neapolitan life and Naples’ highest craft traditions merge. I can’t imagine Christmas without a walk in Via San Gregorio Armeno, nor any visit to Naples without a stop here. The sacred and the profane blend in wondrous harmony in the Neapolitan creche tradition – and are alive on the streets.
The sculpted terracotta presepe figures dressed in hand-sewn, often bejeweled, intricately-embroidered splendor are miniature images of living napolitani today: only the outfits change. The innkeeper, the butcher, the fishmonger, the fruit vendor, the baker, the carpenter, the street musicians and singers in the piazza, and even the acquafrescaio (“seller of cold water”), meticulously re-created by the creche-scene artisans, are alive and well in today’s Naples. If you keep your eyes open, you can meet each one: just around the corner or in the nearest piazza or across the street from your hotel.
Look at the Neapolitan homes lovingly re-created in the presepe (creche) – with perhaps an elderly signora leaning over the balcony to lower her basket down on a rope (to be filled by the fruit vendor below, saving her a trudge three flights up). Then look up at the balconies above you. (Alright, THAT signora might have a cell phone in one hand while she lowers her basket in the other). How not to enjoy pizza baked in the wood-burning oven when in Naples? The wood-burning ovens in the creche scenes are re-created in faithful detail. Feast your eyes on the bounty of the Neapolitan outdoor fruit and vegetable stalls, where oranges, lemons and tangerines are piled in colorful pyramids – today on the streets and in the presepe, too. Nowadays, you might see a vendor as he stocks his stand, unloading produce from this Vespa. You’ll see a similar scene in the Neapolitan creche scene – but a wooden cart takes the place of the scooter.
The presepe napoletano tradition peaks in maximum splendor in the eighteenth century under Bourbon rule. Banquets satiated the royalty and the bourgeoisie; hunger reigned in the streets.
With hunger gnawing, the common people looked up wistfully at the lit windows of the palace kitchens and banquet rooms and dreamed. And so, abundance becomes the salient theme of the presepe: fruit stands are mounded with luscious multi-colored produce, the bread-seller’s basket overflows with rolls, loaves and taralli.
A jowly woman hefts a basket piled high with cheese rounds and mountains of ricotta. Butchers slice huge chunks of red meat, sausage strings dripping above. You’d never imagine the sea held all the varieties of fish stacked on the fishmonger’s cart. Shepherds present fat, well-fed lambs to Gesu Bambino. Inns are filled with raucous guests feasting around heavily-laden tables.
Modern figures, too, join the traditional personages : nowadays, near the Holy Family, you might see the figures of Obama, Berlusconi, Pavarotti, Pope Benedict XVI, the most famous Naples soccer players – or even Gheddafi! Toto’, beloved Neapolitan comic, often stars in the prespe, another “king” flanking the Magi!.
Famous 18th-century architect ,Vanvitelli, dismissed the presepe napoletano with a sniff: “Pazzia collettiva della Napoli …” (“collective Neapolitan madness”).
Viva la pazzia!
Note on the origins of the presepe:
The roots of the Neapolitan creche scene are lost in time. In the fourth century, Pope Liberio promulgated La festitvita’ del Natale – the celebration of the Nativity of Christ – and also founded the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, first known as S. Maria ad Praesepe for the wooden roof supported by tree trunks which the Pope had erected for midnight Mass on December 24th. A reminder of the stall. And today, the creche is called in Italy “il presepe”.
With the Crusades, western Europe is linked directly to the Terra Santa and the Nativity and all episodes of Christ’s life are brought to the people in street theater, le sacre rappresentazioni. In 1222, St. Francis of Assisi literally brought to life the First Christmas for the simple peasants of Greccio with a presepe vivente (“living Nativity”). This supreme example of popular sacred drama was immortalized in a fresco by a Giotto disciple in the Upper Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi in about 1300, and the Presepe di Greccio fresco will inspire the diffusion of Nativity scenes in art throughout Europe.
In Flanders, presepi were sculpted in wood til the early 15th century, whereas early Neapolitan Nativity scenes were carved in pristine white marble in low relief. Gradually, full-bodied figures were sculpted in terracotta and then life-sized wooden figures with moveable limbs (early 17th century).
As early as the late 15th century, churches displayed creche scenes with as many as forty figures. Not long after the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii – in mid-17th century - la Sacra Famiglia will be flanked by truncated Roman columns, symbolizing the triumph of Christianity over pagan traditions, the New Era born on the foundations of the past. The sleeping shepherd – pastore dormiente – becomes central to every presepe, embodying the Biblical passage, ” …and the angels appeared to the sleeping shepherds.” The awakening of the slumbering shepherd symbolizes rebirth. In fact, according to Neapoltan tradition, no one dare wake the dreaming Benino (“the little good one”) – or the entire presepe will disappear! So central is the pastore to the creche, that all the figures in the vast, complex Neapolitan presepi are called “pastori”.
As street theater changes – and becomes more wordly, bawdy, and profane – so do the presepe figures and creche scenes, now depicting every aspect of Neapolitan life and all social levels, including the humble and derelict, the imperfect: dwarfs, the cross-eyed, hunchbacks, the beggars, the blind, those with goiters, the lame, all symbolizing those unfortunate to whom Christ reached out.
In the 18th century, the presepe moves from the churches to the salons of noble palaces. Competition among artists – presepari - grows and noble families strive to outdo each other in the creation of their creches. The Bourbon king Charles III and his Amalia were appassioned of the presepe: each year, Charles worked on the structures and figures while Amalia sewed and embroidered the clothing of the pastori.
Giuseppe Sanmartino, one of the greatest sculptors of the 18th century gives a new impetus to the presepe, adding crowded Neapolitan streets and piazzas to the creche scenes.
Presepari at work