One of my goals this year was to spend some time in Centro (downtown) visiting the churches, most of whom haul out huge, beautiful presepi this time of year. I realized that I have mentioned presepi in this blog and posted a few photos, but I've never dedicated an entire post to them. And they are well worth the effort. The Italian, and specifically the Neapolitan, presepe is much like what we would call a creche. However, they go far beyond a simple nativity scene and rather, add to the traditional to depict daily life. Presepi are as varied as their artists. Some are traditional, centered around nativity scenes. Some tuck the nativity into a little "grotto" in the back and put the focus on other figures. And some I saw this year focused on daily life and didn't show the nativity at all. Some have water features, some have flickering "fire," some have electricity. In general, the presepi are displayed only during the Christmas season. However, there are a few places, mostly museums, here in Naples with year round exhibits. Caserta Royal Palace and Museo San Martino come to mind, and I've heard of a display in the Palazzo Real, a place I've yet to visit.
The nativity was actually "invented" in Italy in the time of St. Francis of Assisi in the 1200s. He'd commissioned an artist to make a nativity scene, and they took on a life on their own, sometimes literally. The tradition began in Italy, and in Naples, the artists hit, and kept, their stride in the 1600s. One of THE places to see in downtown Naples is Via San Gregorio Armeno (known as Christmas Alley to the Americans), an itty-bitty, two block alley that's home to a couple of dozen workshops cranking out the pastori, the figures for a presepe. The figures are made of either terra cotta (cheaper) or wood (vastly more expensive), are hand painted, and the larger ones then have glass eyes inserted. Small figures are completely painted, while large ones are clothed in sumptious finery, silks and velvets and embroidery. Scenes are equally varied, from women hanging washing to cooking to families eating around tables and much, much more.
Ironically, while presepi are probably the single most unique art identifiable to Naples proper, they are the one thing we're not allowed to bring back to the United States. Why? Because the structures are always decorated from bark and moss, prohibited by the USDA. I have heard, though, that there is a way to have a presepe certifiably fumigated, and if I win the drawing I entered for one that is larger than my current bathroom (slight exaggeration, but not by much), I will look into that. Otherwise, I may end up the proud owner of a presepe worth thousands and thousands of euros and no way to take it home. Yep, thousands. They are not cheap. To outfit a fairly small creche with just the basic pastori for a normal nativity would run several hundred euros.
On my trip into downtown Naples this year, I lucked into a large exhibit showcasing the work of several artists. Unfortunately, I did not have our good camera, and the pictures taken with my phone are not the greatest. Still, I hope you can get a sense of the uniqueness of the Neapolitan presepe, taking a traditional nativity scene and making it into a diorama of life, showcasing daily living that any one of us could step into and participate rather than just observing from the outside in.