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Il Presepe: The Tradition of Crèches
Part 2: History and Tradition in Italy
 More of this Feature
• Linguistic Roots
• Study Guide
 Join the Discussion
"I met the creator of the crèche, Luigi Signore, "maestro presepaio di Napoli"; He has been setting up this nativity for almost two decades."
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During the early stages of Christianity the portrayal of Nativity scenes had a varied presentation. The tradition of sculpting nativity scenes for churches goes back to the 13th-century. Although not the first to create a crèche, St. Francis of Assisi helped popularize the tradition. In mid-December 1223, in a natural cave in the town of Greccio, he prepared a straw-filled manger complete with animals. Accompanied by others he celebrated Christmas Eve mass. There were many claims of miraculous healings following this depiction of the birth of Jesus, and reenactment of the Christmas story spread.

In Italy the style and materials used in creating the manger was characterized by geographical origin and historical periods. The Sicilian presepe, for instance, featured materials such as coral, ivory, bone, mother-of-pearl, alabaster, and other sea materials, while the Roman presepe reproduced the typical landscape of the Roman country, including pine and olive trees and the ancient aqueducts.

San Gregorio Armeno: Crib Street, Napoli
In Napoli «fare il presepe», that is, the representation of the Holy Family, became a true art. 18th–century Naples, for instance, the presepe became an elaborate, dramatic scene, full of minor characters with its own conventions that have little to do with the Biblical story. These intricate scenes, with figures in wood or terracotta made by leading sculptors, were destined not for churches but for the houses of wealthy patrons.

Today that tradition lives on in Via San Gregorio Armeno. In the center of Naples, this narrow street, which runs past the 16th century Benedictine convent of the same name, is crowded with hundreds of artisan workshops with colorful window displays and stalls overflowing with Nativity scenes. Also in Naples at the Museo Nazionale di San Martino is "Il Presepe Cuciniello", a monumental collection from the 1700's that includes shepherds, angels, and animals.

Modern Nativity Celebrations
In Italy there are living presepe, in which actors and animals recreate the Nativity scene, exhibitions with hundreds of crèches and mechanized figurines, and museums devoted solely to presepe. In Vatican City there is an enormous nativity scene in Piazza San Pietro erected for the Christmas season. If collecting nativity figurines is your passion, there are plenty of online specialty stores. Consider constructing your own crèche, or, in the spirit of the season, help a youngster build his first presepe.

The tradition of crèches in Italy exemplifies a culture rich in artistic patrimony, and provides insight into Italian religious, linguistic, and storytelling history.

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