il Presepe napoletano

The Neapolitan creche

In Napoli has been heard of the creche since the 1025 in a document mentioning the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Presepe and again in 1324 when in Amalfi is mentioned a "creche chapel in the d'Alagni residence".
In the XV century appear the first "figurarum sculptores" who realize sacred representation in Napoli's churches and chapels - the most important are the creches in San Giovanni in Carbonara, by Pietro and Giovanni Alemanno brothers, in San Domenico Maggiore and in Sant'Egidio and Santa Chiara. Those are full size wooden statues, polichrome, catched in a hieratic attitude of intense religiousness, placed before a painted background.
About half way in the XVI century, leaving the Middle Age symbolism, the modern creche is born, by merit of San Gaetano da Thiene who, according to tradition, manufactured, in 1530, in the oratory of Santa Maria della Stelletta, at the Ospedale degli Incurabili, a creche made of wooden statues dressed with epoch clothes. During that century also, start to appear the first hints of the landscape in relief which replaces the painted background; to the ox and donkey - the only animals present in the representation - are added dogs, sheep, goats.
In the XVI century the creche construction intensify with figures of dimensions more and more reduced, up to the realization of the first moving creche with movable figures, prepared by the Scolopi fathers in 1627.
The neapolitan creche golden century is the XVIII, and it coicides with Carlo III di Borbone Reign, Maecenas sovereign who leads the partenopean town to the level of the most ferment european capitals, feeding a wonderful cultural and artistic flourishing, witnessed also by the magnificent creche production.
The technics to realize the pastore - term which identify any creche character - change, replacing the carved statue, which realization was too long, with a manikin with an iron wire core, with wooden limbs and terracotta heads, obtained from small dies, that have the merit of being arranged as required by the character, represented in the act who have been caught, giving an impression of movement.
The figurinaio becomes a real profession, that also involves the housewives employed in cutting and sewing clothes for the manikins, with various specialization, to the making of shepherds, animals, working and musical instruments, vegetables and bits and pieces, all reproduced in scale.
Among them Giuseppe Sammartino stands out and, for the animals, Saverio Vassallo. The scoglio is created, kind of a rocky spur that, depending its size, could shelter the Mistery scene (Maria, Giuseppe, Jesus, Angels, ox and donkey) or being the basis to the whole creche landscape. The cave, with a myriad of Angels who descend from above, is very often replaced by the ruins of a pagan temple; the Nativity scene becomes more and more defiladed and almost choked by the surroundings scenery superabundant of characters and views, among them stands out the Magi procession, made more exotic by the Moors retinue dressed with oriental gaudy colours clothes.
The number of characters is increased, becoming a mass of peasants , shepherds, fishermen, craftsmen, mendicants, common people and nobles, all of them caught in their daily activities or in recreational moments, at the market, in the workshops, taverns, streets and squares, in a town or country life foreshortening.
The creche becomes a real fashion. The king himself, skilled in handworks and in the realization of devices, surrounds himself of scenographers, artists and architects. Among them G. B. Nauclerio who, through lighting technics, simulated the passage from day to night and vice versa, and also Cappello and De Fazio as well as Mosca, a clerk and ingenious amateur creche manufacturer.
The queen and ladies of rank make up tiny dresses for the manikins with fabrics woven in the regal San Leucio factory. The immense creche, is prepared in several halls of the Royal Palace in Napoli, with hundreds of characters and the greatest care to details.
The nobles, of course, imitate the king, competing with them, in sumptuousness and richness of materials employed: precious gems, magnificent fabrics draw the attention of the common people - received in the patrician residences to admire the creche - perhaps even more than the same creche scene. Are famous the creches prepared for the Ischitella Prince, with the Magi dressed up with clothes shining of innumerable jewels. The creche spreads over the common people of Napoli, even if, naturally, in a less sumptuous form; every house anyway, has its own creche, even if with just a few pastori assembled over a tiny rock, within the scarabattola, a casket to hang on the wall or keep on top of the drawers chest.
Such is the creche phrenitis in Napoli, to cause the architect Luigi Vanvitelli critics, though kind, who in 1752 wrote to his brother Urbano in Rome, defining the creche as a "boy's prank", even noticing the "skill" and the neapolitans "effective diligence", so "clumsy in other activities".
It is evident that the XVIII century creche, properly called "corteous", retains very little of sacred. It is more a wordly experience of nobles and the wealthy middle class: the event and main pastime of Christmas holidays, when the king and his Court visited the most renowned creches of the kingdom capital that sometimes were able to amaze the queen herself, as happened to Carolina in 1768, visiting the creche prepared in Gesu' Nuovo church.
Nevertheless, the universality and impression which accompany the creche event in the XVIII century and the resulting critics, takes away nothing to the phenomenon appraisal, as a real naturalistic baroque art expression, and to its peculiarity as a tangible historical evidence, descriptive of customs, usages and traditions of the neapolitan people in the age which has seen Napoli as a splendid capital of culture and art and a set destination for italian and foreign cultured travellers.
After the Ferdinando IV reign the creche started to decline. The majority of the creches were definitely taken down, the pastori sold or dispersed. Of those fantastic creches almost nothing has reached us. Among the few, has to be recalled the magnificent Cuciniello staging, given to the city of Napoli by the writer Michele Cuciniello and preserved at the Museo della Certosa di San Martino.