Vintage Italian Postcards

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I Presepi

The Christmas Nativity is a big part of Christmas, the local schools’ display, the miniature version in the local department store or large public displays in town centres the world over. Although not started by St Francis, it was popularised by him, when in 1223 he set up a living nativity in the caves of Graccio, Umbria. It featured people and animals who depicted the birth of Christ and it was said that the site was responsible for a number of miracles not long after this event.

During the Renaissance, craftsmen in Val Gardeno, a small valley in the Dolemite mountains began crafting and painting model figures of the nativity, the presepi, in the local stone. These would be brought out and displayed during the festive season and as word spread, people came from far and wide to see the annual exhibition of their work.

400 years later and the “Presepi” - the cribs as they are known in Italian, have now become a popular attraction, interest and hobby the world over. Although nowhere greater than their native Italy. These dioramas are made from a wide variety of materials, in Sicily they use coral, mother of pearl and bone, while wood, stone and clay are preferred in other regions. The most sought after Presepi are those from Naples where in the 18th century a flourishing trade developed producing the little models for the local gentry. Via S. Gregorio Armeno in Naples is still the most concentrated area in the world for the production of the figures.

While initially representations included the manger with baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men, artists quickly added their own interpretations. Today you can add boxes of fruit and veg, joints of meat and fish, flagons of wine and trays of bread, a wide variety of buildings, outhouses and stables. In fact with enough money and space you could conceivable recreate Bethlehem itself.

During the Christmas season there a number of exhibitions of the “Presepi” art, fairs where you can start your own collection and re-enactments of the “living nativity”. The most popular being in Assisi where 60 to 70 locals in period costume and featuring many live animals recreate Christ’s birth. Other living scenes can be visited at Voteranno and Celaba, in the Upper Tiber Valley, while the Cathedral in Citta di Castello hosts the 9th annual Napoletani Presepi Exhibition with collections from all over Italy and Latin America.