Presepe

Looking at the above picture you’d be hard-pressed to identify it correctly. That nice scale model of a village scene – electric street lamps, 1940-looking buildings, balaustraded balconies and all – is in fact a Christian nativity scene, or crèche. The Holy Family is off in the back, in the grotto on the left. Such an anachronistic and geographically out of place representation is a pretty good example of a presepe napoletano, Italian for ‘Neapolitan manger scene’.

Far from being blasphemous, this very traditional Christmas decoration is commonly found in most Italian homes in the weeks leading to December 25th, when families hold small rituals where the baby Jesus figure is placed in the manger to complete the scene. Presepi (this is the plural form of the word) were in fact a common sight in Italian homes – and churches – way before the Christmas tree tradition was adopted from other cultures. While presepi can take many forms from the highly stylized to the exquisitely artistic, only the Neapolitan tradition mixes western and modern figures with historical middle-eastern characters. Historians trace back this strange habit to the late Holy Roman Empire era, when rulers and high clergy in southern Italy were very aristocratic and often from abroad. It is said that many of them didn’t even ever set foot among the commoners, leading privileged lives in their majestic palaces. Their perception of what everyday reality looked like to their people was therefore very limited, as they only caught fleeting glimpses of it while travelling from one court to another. At one time or another the habit spread of commissioning nativity scenes to prominent local artists, with the explicit order of depicting “the real world” in their dioramas. The result were miniature snapshots of an idealized version of Italian villages and towns, with all their characters. 

They became a tradition, so that’s where such unusual sights come from. To this day, nativity figures sculptors use to stay abreast of current events by creating updated characters and decorations every year. Celebrities, athletes, politicians and newsworthy characters all had their miniatures added to the lineup: every December Italian news reports don’t fail to mention new indictments, and appearing as a presepe favorite character is usually considered a honor.