The Neapolitan Nativity Scene, also known as 'presepio,' boasts a long and rich history, having become a tradition passed down from generation to generation. This extraordinary work of art continues to inspire admiration and wonder on a global scale. It's no coincidence that one of the most sought-after attractions in Naples is the renowned 'Via dei Presepi,' or Via San Gregorio Armeno, where, during the Christmas season, due to the massive influx of tourists, it's almost obligatory to follow the one-way system for pedestrians!
Origins of the Neapolitan Nativity Scene
It's surprising, but the presence of a nativity scene in Naples is recorded for the first time way back in 1021, in a notarial act that mentions the Church of Santa Maria al Praesepe. The depicted scene represents the classic Christian nativity with Baby Jesus in the manger, the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, the donkey, and the ox. In 1340, Queen Sancia D'Aragona, wife of Robert of Anjou, donated a nativity scene to the Clarisse for their new Church. Again, it was a basic representation with a cave, the Holy Family, and animals. Today, the statue of the Madonna is preserved in the National Museum of San Martino.
However, it's around 1500 that the birth of the popular nativity scene in Naples is witnessed, thanks to Saint Vincent Gaetano di Thiene. He is credited with the spread of the nativity scene as we know it today. In fact, upon his arrival in Naples in 1533, according to the accounts of the time, he organized a nativity scene with figures dressed as people of that era, in the Oratory of Santa Maria della Stalletta. From that moment, not only were the main characters represented, but also the daily life of the people who animated the streets of Naples: shops, scenes of daily life, the very essence of pure humanity.
The pinnacle of the art of the Neapolitan nativity scene occurred in the 1700s when, from representations in churches, it transitioned to the homes of the aristocracy. Riding the wave of cultural and artistic renewal in the city as desired by King Charles III of Bourbon, even the Neapolitan nativity scene acquired new values. From solely religious patrons, the art expanded with requests from nobles and the wealthy. Artisan workshops flourished with nativity scene masters creating intricate figures, depicting not only the Holy Family but also everyday life with extraordinary details. The wealthiest families began competing with increasingly imposing and scenic nativity displays.
Giuseppe Sanmartino, one of the greatest sculptors of the 18th century (creator of the Veiled Christ in the Sansevero Chapel in Naples), gave life to the Neapolitan Nativity School.
Among the most beautiful nativity scenes in all of southern Italy, where we can admire some figurines created by Giuseppe Sanmartino himself and other great Neapolitan sculptors from the 18th century, is 'The King's Nativity' in the Palatine Chapel of the Royal Palace in Naples. The nativity scene is hosted on loan and constitutes one of the most fascinating and rich collections of 18th-century nativity art. The precious collection includes 210 'shepherd' figures and 144 various accessories from dismantled nativity scenes, most of which were sold or dispersed at the dawn of the 19th century.
Another famous nativity scene is the Cuciniello nativity, created between 1887 and 1889, exhibited at the Certosa of San Martino.
San Gregorio Armeno, the Street of the Nativity Scenes
San Gregorio Armeno, in the heart of Naples, is known for its nativity scene workshops.
The origin of this street is very ancient. In the past, it was the site of a temple dedicated to the goddess Ceres, where offerings were made in the form of terracotta statuettes. In the 10th century, on these foundations, a monastery was built that housed the relics of St. Gregory of Armenia, brought by nuns fleeing from Constantinople.
The tradition of votive statuettes transformed into evangelical figures has made the street famous as "the street of the nativity scenes". The local artisans still handcraft these particular statuettes. San Gregorio Armeno offers everything necessary to create a nativity scene. Every corner of this street is dotted with artisan workshops, each with its own interpretation of the nativity story.
Places and Characters of the Neapolitan Nativity Scene
The Neapolitan nativity scene is imbued with symbolism reflecting various dimensions of life and spirituality. Elements such as the landscape, the well, the fountain, the bridge, the mill, the river, and the inn embody distinct symbolism: the cork landscape represents the journey through darkness toward the light of Baby Jesus. The well symbolizes the connection between the surface and Evil before the rise of Good. The fountain is linked to the announcement of the archangel Gabriel and symbolic encounters. The bridge represents the passage into the unknown and might be the site of supernatural encounters during the Christmas night. The mill symbolizes temporal rebirth during the Christmas season. The river represents time and the birth of Mary. The inn symbolizes a funeral banquet and human sins.
Furthermore, the nativity scene includes several symbolic characters:
- The Magi, representing the journey of the star and the phases of the day, symbolize the world and time that pause for the birth of Jesus.
- Benino, situated in a corner, is considered one of the most important figures, representing all of humanity in a sleep free from logical patterns, capable of approaching eternity only in dreams.
- The washerwomen symbolize midwives assisting Mary and her virginity.
- The gypsy figure, although opposed by Christian doctrine, represents the allegory of the prophecy embodied by the Sibyls, predicting the Crucifixion of the unborn child.
- Food vendors offer a variety of characters symbolizing the twelve months of the year.
- The hunter and the fisherman, associated with the river, symbolize the life-death cycle and the heavenly-earthly duality.
- Ciccibacc ngopp a bott, a pagan figure among Christians, reflects the conflict between the sacred and the profane.
- The Shepherd of Wonder represents the wonder in the face of the divine.
- The Beggars, Lame, and Blind represent the souls of Purgatory seeking prayers.
- Shepherds and Sheep symbolize the faithful guided by the shepherds toward God.
- The Ox and the Donkey, warming Jesus's manger, symbolize the balancing of Good and Evil.
These elements and characters make up an extensive symbolism in the Neapolitan nativity scene, each carrying a unique meaning in the representation of the Nativity.
Famous Characters in the Neapolitan Nativity Scene
One of the fascinating aspects of Neapolitan nativity scenes is the presence of famous personalities and celebrities, both current and historical.
It's quite entertaining to note how each year artisans add new characters, from footballers - of course, in a Neapolitan nativity scene, the statuette of Diego Armando Maradona can never be missing - to politicians, to showbiz personalities. Each figure is crafted with care and precision!"