Presepio: the Nativity Scene in Italy

The nativity scene is part of the popular Christmas iconography all over the Christian world, but nowhere is it elevated to such an art form as it is in Naples.

While Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with introducing the first living nativity scene in 1223, scenes with statues are mentioned in Neapolitan church documents as early as 1025. The current style of presepio napoletano, however, began its evolution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

presepio italia christmas

A Neapolitan nativity scene (image via the Wiki).

What sets them apart is that the holy figures are set in the midst of scenes from every day life, usually life from the eighteenth century. Great pride is taken in the construction of these pieces which is respected as a true art form in all of Campania.

The nativity scene is of greater cultural importance than the Christmas tree and is constructed and displayed in most homes on December 8, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception. The baby Jesus figurine is placed in its crib on the night of Christmas Eve.

On via San Gregorio Armeno in the heart of Naples’ historic center, artisan shops sell presepio scenes and figurines year round. In addition to the holy characters, the classic characters to be found in the nativity scenes include the pulcinello, fisherman, monk, female gypsy, and Bacchus.

Recently, many artisans have taken to creating figurines of contemporary characters as well. The famous Neapolitan comedic actor Totò is probably the most popular, along with Eduardo de Filippo. Prominent Italian politicians can even be found, as well as Americans such as Barak Obama.

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