Il Presepio o Presepe
The Nativity Scene
Centuries ago, in 1223, San Francesco (Saint Francis), the charismatic friar of Umbria, wanted to bring to life the story of il natale di bambino Gesù (the birth of Baby Jesus). In the little town of Greccio, he placed a manger in some straw and added a living Madonna, San Giuseppe (St. Joseph), shepherds (pastori) and actual cattle (bue), sheep (pecore) and donkeys (asinelli), the animals that, as the story goes, once warmed the infant with their breath.
Throughout Italy every church constructs a presepio, including presepi viventi (living crèches) with real people and animals, ranging from simple to stunning. Some include hills, trees, lakes, rivers, angels suspended by wires, the Christmas star (stella cometa) and reproductions of an entire village or countryside with the cave (grotta) of Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The culla di paglia (cradle of straw) remains empty until the night of Natale.
Naples is most famous for its presepi, with hundreds of nativity scenes, including many with handmade or antique figures, set up around the city. Throughout the year artisans along San Gregorio Armeno create elaborate statuine (clay figures) of the traditional Nativity figures as well as of contemporary personalities such as President Barack and Michele Obama.
In the past many families would go to the woods (bosco) to gather moss and greens to serve as backdrop. for their presepio. Today it’s possible to buy plastic figurines, fake grass, and entire miniature villages. However, the tradition of putting together a unique presepio remains strong.
One friend recalls the annual ritual of unpacking the box (scatola) in which all the statuini were stored. Her father would take out each pastore (shepherd), introduce him by name, and tell a little story about his life and what he was doing on that magical night so many years ago. Each of the children would do the same with the animals. Because the magi or wise men didn't arrive in Bethlehem until January 6, the date of the Epiphany, his family would place the three kings at a distance from the presepio and move them, along with the star they followed, ever closer every day.
If you’re in Italy for the holidays, don’t miss a visit to the local presepi. In Rome you can find a huge presepio in St. Peter's Square as well as other elaborate ones in the Piazza del Popolo, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Santa Maria d'Aracoeli, and Piazza Navona. At any time of year you can view presepi at two museums: Il Museo Nazionale di San Martino in Naples and Il Museo Tipologico Nazionale del Presepio, under the church of Saints Quirico e Giulitta in Rome.
Words and Expressions
presepe vivente — living nativity scene
stella cometa — the comet, guiding star
culla di paglia — cradle of straw
il natale di bambino Gesù – Baby Jesus’s birth
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered, now in paperback, and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.
To watch the making of a presepio, click below: