The Presepio

December 9, 2021

It is said that St Francis of Assisi was the first to present a live nativity scene while celebrating Mass on Christmas Eve. Through time, the creche or manger scene is known in Italy as the presepio and these are found in churches across Italy, displayed in art museums and store front windows, as well as seen along roadways where they are tucked into stonewalls. 

A drive along the Amalfi coast will reveal many of them and a walk down Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, known for its exquisite presepii, is a vibrant and colorful crowed street made famous by the presepio trade; the handcrafted nativity figures made by local artists from terracotta and dressed elegantly in the costumes of old Naples, are always in demand. I stopped to look for figures in some of the jam-packed shops and bought an angel for the top of my Christmas tree. 

Today’s presepio reflects more than just the manger scene of the Christ Child, shepherds, and Three Kings; there are figures of present day politicians, Sophia Loren, the pizzaiola (pizza maker), the prosciutto-maker, the wet nurse, scenes of life in old Naples and the constant favorite, Pucinella, the masked clown in baggy white pants, pointed hat, and ruffled shirt, who is the classic and complex character symbol of Naples, a symbol of fortune and fate, of laughter and tears, of good and evil, of conflict and resolve, of intrigue and innuendo.

The presepio has been displayed in many unusual ways in Italy and is on view all year long in churches, display windows and tucked into the chiseled stone sides along busy highways. Buon Natale!

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