The creche art of Naples is truly an artistic representation of la vita napoletana, then and now. The presepe napoletano (Neapolitan crib scene), more than just a religious celebration, has become a way to describe the Neapolitan culture, each napolitano identifying with it and feeling represented.
As I’d written in a past blog note (after a Naples walk among the creche-scene artisans), the roots of the Neapolitan creche probably date to the fourth century, when Pope Liberio promulgated la festitvita’ del Natale – the celebration of the Nativity of Christ. The same Pope also founded the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, first known as “S. Maria ad Praesepe” for the simulated stall – wooden roof held up by tree trunks – which the Pope wished erected for midnight Mass on December 24th: a reminder of the Christ Child’s birthplace
And today, throughout Italy, the creche is called “il presepe.”
With the Crusades, western Europe is linked directly to the Terra Santa (“Holy Land”) and the Nativity and all episodes of Christ’s life are presented 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 the very late 13th-century, and the Presepe di Greccio fresco will inspire the diffusion of Nativity scenes in art throughout Europe.
The crib scene becomes art in Naples and for centuries, has been – and still is – a means of identification of the Neapolitan spirit. The origins of this extraordinary artisanal tradition? In an early 11th-c notary act, the placing of a creche in a Naples church dedicated to the Virgin was documented.
Near the end of the 17th-century, the Neapolitan creche scenes take on a theatrical flair, mix the sacred and the profane, and present scenes typical of daily life in the piazzas and winding medieval alleyways of Naples.
Protagonists of the creche scenes become the humble workers and artisans: the innkeeper, shoemaker, fisherman, butcher and fruit vendor…
The outcasts of society are figured: dwarfs, prostitutes, and beggars, the toothless elderly (and sometimes with goiters) and hunchbacks.
A hunchback – called “scio scio” in the Neapolitan creche scene – is said to bring good luck and the presepe figure of the scio scio keeps away the malocchio (“evil eye”):
Often, the humble wooden stall is replaced with the remains of Greek and Roman temples, emphasizing Christianity’s triumph over pagan credences.
The greatest Neapolitan sculptor of the 18th-c., Giuseppe Sammartino, started to teach others the art of creating figures in terracotta and thanks to him, the presepe napoletano achieves recognition as an esteemed artistic expression.
*Sammartino’s Cristo Velato (“Veiled Christ””)- sculpted in 1753 – is a treasure not to miss (when you head to Naples to see all the creche scenes):
Reigning in Naples in the 18th-c., Bourbon King Charles was impassioned by the Neapolitan presepi and brought Neapolitan presepe artisans with him when he ascended to the throne in Spain in the 1759; thus the tradition is diffused throughout Europe. His successor and third son, Ferdinando di Borbone, inherited his father’s passione and the artisanal work of the creche artisans soon also involved seamstresses, woodworkers, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, metalworkers, and experts in embroidery.
Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples is called “la strada dei pastori” (“the street of the shepherds”) – for “pastore” (“shepherd”) is the generic name for each figure of the Naples presepe, including the Holy Family personages and the Magi. The artisans creating the presepi are called “pastorari (“shepherd-makers”).
Probably the most famous of all the pastorari of Naples are the Ferrigno family – creators of presepe wonders since the end of the 19th century. Marco Ferrigno continues with grande passione the craftsmanship taught him by his father Giuseppe who died some years ago.
The Ferrigno workshop creates many versions of the traditional pastore figures present at Christ’s birth in the Neapolitan presepe, such as the bread-seller…
..the butcher, the chestnut vendor……
…the fruit and vegetable vendors…
…the fisherman, the shepherd…
…the artisan who made – and then sold -copper pots….
…the fish vendors…
…and naturalmente, the Magi are there in rich elegance:
...assisted by their servants:
But the Ferrigno workshop – like many other pastorari – create contemporary presepi figures as well, though I’m not sure how many of these end up in family creche scenes near the Holy Family, the shepherds. the Magi and the other traditional pastori:
Chatting with Marco on the phone recently, I asked him how long he has been a pastoraro.”Since I was a child, for after school, my Mamma would bring me to our bottega (workshop) where both my parents worked.” When I asked him what this craft meant to him today, he replied without hesitation: “Learning this craft has been the most beautiful aspect of my life for I can combine my passion with my work.”
I asked him how he felt about the empty streets of Via San Gregorio Armeno these days:
He said that he and his collaborators are doing some work in any case – via the Internet – but that “this is a cold, impersonal way to work without satisfaction. I miss the human interaction and those ordering by mail without seeing us work seem to think we are offering an industrialized production. We are not.” He remembers with nostalgia the days when all the shops of the pastorari were open…
….and Via San Gregorio Armeno was filled with presepe appassionati, especially close to Christmastime:
Even though the workshops are closed in Via San Gregorio Armeno, many of the pastorari – Marco Ferrigno included – have sold out via Internet orders one of the newest pastori figures: the image of recently-deceased beloved Argentinian soccer star, Diego Maradona, who had played for eight years for the Naples team, bringing it many times to glory. He’ll probably be placed right near the Christ Child in their crib scenes by many napoletani adoring fans.
When I was in Naples years ago, I remember seeing the altar in his honor in a backstreet:
Marco – who knew Maradona – depicted him with wings:
I asked why and Marco replied “He’s the angel which has rescued us – and has saved the art of the presepe.”
The presepe napoletano includes other new figures this year: doctors and nurses battling COVID:
And Marco’s Facebook page encourages fellow Italians to follow the government’s COVID regulations about staying home:
(“I continue to remain home. You do it, too!”)
(“…and I continue to stay home. I urge you to do the same!”)
Stay well, everybody.
And stay home – so that your next Christmas can be celebrated in Naples with a stroll in Via San Gregorio Armeno.
Read about the Mediterranean diet presented in the Neapolitan creche
Click here to read more on the Neapolitan creche