Whilst visiting the Spaccanapoli district of Naples we stumbled across an exhibition of traditional Neapolitan “presepi”, or Christmas Nativity Scenes. This was being held by the Associazione Italiana Amici del Presepio in the church of San Vitale in Santa Marta, in Via San Sebastiano. This association, founded in 1953, strives to keep alive the tradition of the Nativity scene.
The “presepio” became very popular in Naples during the 18th century, when the Bourbon King Charles III commissioned famous artists and craftsmen to create elaborate Baroque nativity scenes for his court. Influenced by the King’s patronage, it was not long before it became fashionable for wealthy families of Naples to be seen to be following suit. This gave rise to an increased rivalry regarding who could create the finest display. It is said that the King himself would come to view the one selected to be the most excellent. There were also such scenes created for church displays.
Many of the artisans that create these figures come from families who have been carrying out this specialised skilled work for many generations. In Italian they are known as “presepari”.
In the exhibition there were some nativity tableaux with the usual characters of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the ox, the donkey, shepherds and angels.
Inside each figurine there is a wire framework with padding wound around it. This enables the figure’s limbs to be re-positioned. The heads, hands and legs are normally created from terracotta. The eyes are made of glass. Particular attention is taken when sculpting the expressions on the faces of the mannequins so that each model seems to take on a unique personality.
The same precise attention to detail is taken when clothing the figurines, together with the general backdrop and scenery of the staged scene, and also the array of props.
Some of the characters, such as the Magi, are robed in fine embroidered fabrics with beads and opulent trimmings.
Some of the presepi include typical scenes of village life. Once again attention to detail is key, for example below note the miniature bunches of grapes on the vine, the tiny terracotta bricks and tiles, the wine-press and barrels.
These scenes of stalls displaying fruit, vegetables, meat, salamis, cured hams, cheeses, eggs, fish and shellfish are meticulously fashioned in coloured wax.
Other scenes depict various characters and professions such as musicians and dancers. Note the miniature ceramic tiles, the bench and the mandolin.
An elegant lady taking her dogs for a stroll.
A shepherd carrying a basket of porcini mushrooms and a lady with a basket of grapes.
A hunter with his dogs and catch of the day.
A fisherman, draped with nets, with a bucket containing an octopus.
Here’s a scene depicting Neapolitan townsfolk viewing a nativity scene !
And finally, a maestro “preseparo” at his work.
How outstanding these nativity scenes are !!!
All photos © me Louise Shapcott
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