I first developed a fondness for the “presepe”, or nativity scene, when I was living in Padua aged about 10. The father of one of my best friends used to construct an elaborate mechanical crib landscape in his lobby every year around Christmas time. I remember when I first saw it, with its twinkling lights, running water streams and pretty little statues, I was awestruck. I used to look forward to going around to their house just so that I could marvel at the different sections, such as the three kings and their gifts, the shepherds, the angels, and the everyday town scenes he created.
When my family moved back to England in 1994 after a year-and-a-half in Italy, we took back our own little crib and we have constructed it every Christmas since. I also spent significant time trying and failing to build a water stream in our garden like the ones in the Italian nativities.
Since moving to Rome eighteen years later, I have enjoyed visiting the churches at Christmas time and admiring the different crib scenes they build. I decided to do some more detailed research and hunt out some of the most beautiful nativity gems around the Italian capital, as well as in Naples and Salerno, which have a rich history of crib construction.
I started in Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major), home to the statues that Arnolfo di Cambio sculpted around 1291, which are generally considered the oldest existing nativity sculptures. He was likely inspired by the “living” nativity started by Saint Francis of Assisi, who arranged a scene consisting of real people and animals in Greccio in 1223, after visiting Jesus’s birthplace in Bethlehem.
Di Cambio’s nativity scene consists of eight large marble figures: Mary and Jesus, Joseph leaning on his walking stick, the three wise men, one of them kneeling, and the heads of the ox and the donkey. While the surrounding statues are original, the Mary and Jesus sculpture is thought to either be a replacement from the 1500s or to have undergone some retouching.
Di Cambio built these sculptures in Santa Maria Maggiore to honour the relics of the Holy Crib– the boards of Jesus’s manger, which were brought from Bethlehem to Rome in the 7th century and are now kept in the crypt under the central altar of the church:
Saint Mary Major, on the Esquiline hill, was one of the first churches in Rome where a Christmas celebration was held– following a similar tradition among Christians in Palestine to mark the birth of Jesus. It was built in the fifth century by Pope Sixtus III, who started holding a Midnight Mass in one of its chapels, mirroring a midnight service held in Bethlehem. The church was also known as “S. Maria ad Praesepe” or “Saint Mary of the Manger”
In the sixth century the pope started holding a Christmas Mass at dawn the next morning in the Basilica of Saint Anastasia, at the foot of the Palatine hill. This church, also considered one of the earliest sites of Christmas celebrations, is built on the spot where it is believed that Romulus, the founder of Rome, and his twin brother Remus were suckled by the wolf as babies. Early Christmas traditions here may have evolved from pagan rituals.
A Mass to mark Anastasia’s feast day on the 25th of December was merged into the Christmas celebration. The highly exclusive Mass the pope held here before the main service of the day in Saint Peter’s connected Rome with Christianity in the east, where Anastasia of Sirmium was deeply venerated. It was likely inspired by the dawn Mass in the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem (Anastasis means resurrection in Greek). Here is what that Basilica looks like today:
The pope no longer holds a dawn Mass at this basilica, but Anastasia has a special mention in his second Christmas Mass on December 25th. Inside the modern-day church is quite plain, but when I visited in 2014 I saw they had come up with this nativity effort:
In the nearby Santa Maria in Aracoeli, on the Capitoline Hill, there is another Christmas and nativity-related tradition linking Rome to eastern Christianity: The Holy Bambino of Aracoeli. The original statue of the baby Jesus dated back to the fifteenth century. Information provided by the church explained that it was made in Jerusalem and carved out of wood from an olive tree in the garden of Gethsemane by a Franciscan friar. Unfortunately it was stolen in 1994 and has yet to be recovered. An exact copy now stands in its place:
According to the legends, the case containing the original statue was thrown overboard during the friar’s return trip to Rome, but it miraculously arrived in the port of Livorno behind his ship. The figure was venerated in Rome as a result, especially around Christmas time. Apparently one Christmas a noble Roman lady stole the statue and hid it in her home, but as the legends go, the statue miraculously left her house by itself and returned to its place in the church. It has not returned following its most recent theft though.
People have long left gifts and flowers at the feet of the Holy Bambino, and nowadays year-round you can write prayers on little pieces of paper provided and leave them for him. At Midnight on Christmas Eve he is paraded in the church and placed in the nativity crib, and on Epiphany he is carried in a procession around the Capitoline hill.
Returning to the wider tradition of nativity scenes, it was in the period between the 16th and 18th centuries, particularly in the Kingdom of Naples, when their construction really blossomed. During this time the nativity displays expanded to include scenes of everyday life, and characters such as tavern owners, market sellers and beggars. Some of these characters were naughty, mischievous or comical, as the crib makers increasingly mixed the sacred with the profane.
There are a few beautiful Neapolitan-made cribs from this period on show all year round in Rome. The first one worth visiting in between Christmas shopping is in Santa Maria in Via, a lovely little church behind the Galleria Umberto Sordi. This eighteenth century crib is found in a small room to the left of the altar, and is lit with blue light. In this first picture you see the main crib scene, with the pretty angels above. The inclusion of the Roman columns reflects the tradition of the period to place the nativity in a local and familiar setting. You can also see glimpses of normal street life.
In the picture below you can see a detail of the scene which allows you to peek into a household where the couple are having dinner. You can also see the characters in the surrounding streets, including some musicians and a bread maker.
Every year the “Associazione Italiana Amici del Presepio” or “Friends of the Nativity” set up a second crib in the main church, which they unveil on Christmas Eve. I popped in on the 20th in 2014 and saw that they were preparing it. They told me the theme was Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. The characters portrayed aside from the Holy Family were actually Briganti- the bandits that used to terrorise people on the roads outside Rome. There was a tavern where the thieves were drinking, complete with rifles on the wall, and some scenes of people being mugged!
Here they are in the process of building it:
Another stunning 18th century Neapolitan presepe that can be visited year-round in Rome is in the church of Saints Cosma e Damiano, in the Roman Forum. This includes figurines and decorations designed by Neapolitan artists such as Sammartino, Vassallo and Vaccaro. You can spend ages standing in front of it and observing all of the minute details of its everyday street scenes.
I like the angels in this one best of all! They really look they are flying.
Around this period, aristocratic families especially liked to recruit the best presepe artists to make them the most extravagant nativity cribs. I saw one of the best examples earlier this year in the Royal Palace of Caserta. The noble Bourbon family who owned this palace was passionate about cribs and helped spread the tradition around the world. They don’t get much more elaborate than this:
During Christmas there are usually several nativity exhibitions on in cities in Lazio and Campania, such as the “100 Presepi” annual display in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. While I was visiting Salerno one weekend in December I saw one display that had some great close-up examples of the detailed character portrayals, such as this fish seller:
Interesting street scenes could also be seen in the large Neapolitan-style crib in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Salerno, near the railway station:
Another nativity gem that I spotted in Salerno was the more unusual presepe next to the Cathedral, which was actually made up of lifesize figures painted by Mario Carotenuto. It was very pretty and atmospheric:
I couldn’t do a blog on presepi without visiting Naples. So on my way back from Salerno, I stopped off to see the famous street of San Gregorio Armeno, which is lined with nativity statue sellers. Generally, and especially at this time of year, this street is packed with people trying to get the latest goods for their cribs.
Usually the sellers include statues portraying the politicians and celebrities who made headlines in any given year. I spotted George and Amal Clooney, Pope Francis, Angela Merkel, some sports stars and a few others I don’t recognise, can anyone help?
The range of statues they have here is amazing. Several stalls also sell mechanical pieces, such as fishermen operating their lines, and cooks putting pizza or bread in their ovens. You can also pick up tinkling water features and sets of fruit and meat sellers along with memorabilia related to Naples’ famous Pulcinella character with his black mask.
I decided to pick up some more angels for our nativity scene in England. I was spoilt for choice!
On my way back to the station I stopped in Naples Cathedral, dedicated to its beloved patron San Gennaro. I had a peek at their presepe, which was pretty and very brightly coloured:
Obviously there are countless other nativity gems around these parts of Italy that I have not been able to include here. If I find any more really stunning ones I will update you!
Merry Christmas darlings! Buon Natale!