The Nativity Scene in Italian Art – 2

Neapolitan Nativity Scene
Neapolitan Nativity Scene

In Naples, where the most elaborate creations eventually took place, we have a record of a Presepe given by Queen Sancia to the Poor Clares in 1370.  Development was subsequently rapid, with artists such as Giovanni and Pietro Alemanno and Giovanni da Nola.  The Presepe became mobile, based on wooden sculptures crafted to scale.  Artisans became ever more skilled in creating the “pastori”, eventually adding articulated limbs, wigs, glass eyes, lifelike bare skin.  At the same time the background was developing, the setting became important.  Perspective and special illumination were used, decorative elements were added, attention was paid to colors and the use of reflective surfaces.  In effect the Presepe outstripped its original function of representing  the bare Nativity, and became an artistic ideal in its own right, becoming more and more secularized in the process.  The scope of the representation also expanded: it was now not just the shepherds  and the Magi who came to worship the newborn Christ, but people from all walks of life, the baker, the butcher, the candle-maker…, all in the typical dress of their day and trade.

The Nativity scene is of course represented in very many countries all over the world, and it is fascinating to see how native cultural elements are incorporated into the Diversorium.  The pastori exhibit local physiognomies and local dress, architectural elements echo the architecture of the country, vegetation and other decorative elements are modeled after local examples.  The fidelity that is lost in giving up the attempt to represent the Palestinian landscape of 2000 years ago is more than made up for by the ecumenical union of all believers and by the implicit declaration that the event represented transcends any local characterization and holds a message for all mankind.

In Naples, particularly, we find that unique blend of classicism and religious art that had swept the Peninsula since the Quattrocento.  Thus, a Neapolitan Presepe may depict the grotto of the Nativity next to Roman columns, with the Vesuvio in the background and perhaps even the sea, Naples’ sea, somewhere in the scene.  Today the most spectacular collection of Presepi is found at the Museo di San Martino in Naples.  In these examples, rich in baroque detail and symbolism, some of the figures may be arrayed in valuable cloth and may be wearing real jewels.

The artistic/religious theme began to wane in the 19th century, and the Presepe became a commercial commodity, within reach of most families who wanted to recreate the Nativity scene, in a more or less simplified form, in their own homes.  Today one can buy most representational elements in a wide variety of sizes and assemble them at home – typically a joyous activity that involves the whole family.  A famous street in Naples, San Gregorio Armeno, houses most Neapolitan Presepe artisans, and the neighborhood comes alive every Christmas as hordes of Neapolitans and tourists alike prowl the shops in search of pastori, I Re Magi, il Bue e l’Asinello, the Angels, il Bebe’, and perhaps the Tavern-Keeper and the Shoe Maker.

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The Nativity Scene in Italian Art – 1

Nativity scene
Italian Nativity Scene

The Nativity Scene, called the “Presepe” in Italian, began with Saint Francis of Assisi, who re-enacted the scene of Christ’s birth in a living tableau in Greccio in 1223.  While conventional two-dimensional representations of the Nativity were plentiful in medieval and Renaissance Italy, the idea of a three-dimensional representation achieved via sculpted figures was slow to take off.  The earliest known artist to have attempted this was Arnolfo di Cambio, who, in 1283, created a representation “del tutto tondo”, in his own words.  But it was not until the first half of the Seicento that great advances in this new art form were made, starting in Lombardia  and Liguria and then extending elsewhere.  The artists associated with these advances were Antonio Bagarelli at Modena, Guido Mazzoni a Piobbico, Federico Brandani at Urbino, etc.

There are three themes that are played out in the Presepe.  They are the Mystery, the Annunciation, and the Diversorium.  The Mystery is of course, in Christian doctrine, the mystery of the Son of God taking on a human nature for the salvation of mankind,  The Annunciation in this context refers to announcing the fateful event to the world, symbolised by the shepherds receiving word from the Angel.  The Diversorium is a fancy Latin word which refers to the location, in this case the hut, in which the holy birth takes place.

The tale of the Nativity on which the Presepe is based can be found in Luke and Matthew.  Origen added the now canonical bue e asinello in the third century.  A point of deep theological import was the depiction of the Virgin Mary.  Should she be represented as a woman who had just given birth, attended by midwives and fortune tellers, as was common at that time?  Or should she be shown immune to the stress and the pain of human childbirth?  The former representation emphasised heavily the human nature of Christ; the second brought to the fore His divine nature, making it seem that his birth had not been of the normal human variety.

The Presepe as an art form reached its zenith in the Bourbon Naples of the 18th century.  A later article will detail its progress from these small beginning to the baroque masterpieces housed at the Museo di San Martino.

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