Where does the crèche tradition come from? Why it is still so important today? A trip through the history of the Nativity scene in Italy...
The Nativity scene is an important part of Christmas in Italy, as in any other Christian Catholic countries.
The Nativity scene can be found in homes - it is usually prepared in combination with the Christmas tree - in Churches or outdoors, and its aim is reminding and to bring back to life the birth of Jesus "in a manger inside a stable because there wasn't any place that could host them". The representation of the birth of Jesus in Bethlem is done often through maquettes that include the Jesus infant, the Virgin Mary and Joseph. Together with these protagonists many other can be depicted, usually the Magi and Angels, the ass and the ox in the stable that were supposed to keep them warm, or common people coming from the surroundings to adore Jesus, shepherds, bakers.... In time, the Nativity scene has been enriched of many other characters that contribute to create the right atmosphere for this religious event or the representation of the local traditions of the country where is made. This representation is to be found also in art history. Among many, the Nativity and the Magi adoration in the Duomo Cathedral of Milan or the mosaics in Palermo at the Cappella Palatina.
Presepe - the name of the Nativity scene in Italian - comes from latin praesepium, which means place that has a fence in the front (prae= in front of, saepes=fence), a manger used to feed animals in a stable. It's Luca and Matteo apostoli who recounts the Nativity first in the Gospels and it is probably Saint Francis of Assisi who created the first Nativity scene during the Christmas night of 1223 in Greccio, Italy, in order to stress the religious meaning of the Festivity compared to the materialism of giving gifts. The Nativity Scene was a living one in a cave, with humans playing the Biblical roles.
It's only around 1280 that we find the first lifeless Nativity scene as we know it today. It was Arnolfo di Cambio in Tuscany who carved the Nativity scene, the oldest one we own still nowadays, displayed in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. From then on until 1400 the artisans would build (big or little) statues in wood or earthenware, inserted in a landscape as similar as possible to the real one.
Arnolfo di Cambio's Nativity Scene
Carlo III of Borbone brings the Nativity scene to Naples (Campania) in 1700 and then became common in the rest of the Italian Kingdoms. During this period artists start to give a more naturalistic character to the representation, including real details of the Italian country and the people represented while occupied in their daily occupations or in their spare time. At this time the reproductions start to be incredibly detailed, following the style of the dresses worn at the time or the architectures of the houses. In Naples, rich families start to compete for who owns the most beautiful Nativity scene.
Liguria and Sicily distinguish themselves for the realistic attempts, too. In 1800 the crèche becomes officially a common tradition among many families, thriving thanks to the craftsmanship of skilled artists. During this period, in Lecce (Puglia) starts the use of papier mâché, sometimes polychrome as a backdrop. One of the oldest Nativity scene we still have nowadays is the one in the Santo Stefano Church in Bologna that is prepared every Christmas.
Today, after a brief period during the '60ies in which the Nativity scene was surpassed by the Christmas tree, the presepe is back, representing Italy and its tradition. Among the cities more devoted to the Nativity scene there is certainly Naples, where in Via san Gregorio Armeno you can buy many statues carved by artisans, Bologna, with its Santa Lucia market where you can found all artisanal statues for the chèche. In Genova (Liguria) there is the Nativity Scene Museum (Via Mafalda di Savoia 3, Genova Nervi) whereas in Manarola (Liguria) there is a whole ill converted in a Nativity scene for Christmas (around 250 life-size statues).
Written by: Elisa della Barba