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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