il Presepe Ligure

The Ligurian creche

The creche art in Liguria was born and developed in the Baroque age, particularly in Genoa, where more were the requests from the important families, for blason or wealth,
in the just found republic.
The first productions are made of small statues carved in wood, gold-plated and painted, which take as model the marble sculptures, altar frontals, trittici, pictures reproducing Nativities and the adoring Magi, present in the churches in town and the surroundings, works of art of artists like Gagini, Orsolino, Foppa, Brea, Bergamasco, Semino, the Calvi brothers.
The phenomenon proceeds at the same rate of the devotional custom of the processions, during which was usage to carry over the shoulders big statues in wood (already dressed with epoch clothes at the beginning of the XVII century) ordered by the various Confraternity, like the "Presepio" or "Re Magi".
From this the creation of wooden figures of smaller size to form creches alike the one the news reported, manufactured by father Alberto Oneto in the church of Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto in Multedo di Pegli.
The dimensional reduction of the creche characters, also executed in precious or valuable materials as gold, silver, alabaster, takes place in the same workshops and sculpture and painting schools by the same artists who, subsequently, will assert themselves among the most demanded goldsmiths, painters, sculptors. Among them the Pippi's, Filippo Sanatacroce sons, in the same school was a student the equally famous Gerolamo del Canto and also Giovanni Battista Castello, who preferred amongst the materials employed the tortoise, and the workshop of Domenico Bissoni and his son Giovanni Battista Gaggini da Bissoni, Piola, Francesco Costa and many more.
In the course of the XVII century and even more in the XVIII century, the characters composing the ligurian creche scene multiply, to the shepherds are added peasants, artisans, nobles and common people, page-boys, mendicants and poultry and pasture animals.
The expansion of the production determines new technical choices and imposes a taste revolution: no more painted little statues in wood but wooden manikins dressed with now poor now sumptuous clothes, depending on the character represented.
The artist ability concentrate in the heads, on the faces with glass eyes, on the hands, only on those parts which will stay uncovered; leader of this new style is Anton Maria Maragliano with a figurative language but refined that will become only later more realistic in the attitudes and in the images expressions, thanks to artisans free by then from his influence.
At this point the historical vicissitudes determine the second and longer lasting turn of ligurian creche art caused by the new democratic and anarchical system result of the French Revolution, introduced in Liguria by the Napoleonic army.
Under the french strokes, the old dominant class fades, and with it, in practice, dies the nobles and middle class demand, nevertheless the Jansenist trend aimed to get rid of the religious folkloristic customs does not find the favour of the urban and country people, who remained faithful to their own devotional traditions. Therefore, at the beginning of '800s the sacred representations continue in the ligurian churches from texts in vernacular and spoken language, renowned the Gelindo, interpreted by the believers, as witnessed in one of his reports the diplomat Count Nigra, who partecipated as a child.
In the same way it has been kept alive the creche tradition, which now, being forced to fulfill the demand of less wealthy people, loses its scenographical preciousness and the clothes and accessories luxuriousness, to reduce itself to a serial production, narrowed to a few models, representing common people with their simple clothes and modest donations, arranged in small compositions to display at home during Christmas holidays.
But the cost of wood and of the artisan labor, due to the time required, unsuitable for mass production, make the creche price out of reach to most of the people. Time is ripe for the shift from wood to terracotta and die-moulding.
The transit from handicraft to industrial work occurs almost naturally, due to the existing kilns in Savona and in the adjacent Albisola, that since immemorial time, perhaps already in the late Roman Empire centuries, producing pottery articles. The idea comes from the plastic figures casts employed already in the second half of the XVIII century by the Giacomo Boselli workshop and, at its activities discontinuance, being inherited by the Savanese factories, have been used, besides other different works, to produce terracotta creche figures.
The clay compressed into the moulds, created by the figurinai, on traditional models, baked afterwords, is stamped in little statues which are painted in bright colours once cold. This procedure allowed products of rough workmanship, even if refined by the XVIII century heritage, as regretted by the students of the matter at the beginning of the century, but permitted fair prices reachable by everybody's pouch.
The figurinai therefore multiply, the most famous, the Savona sculptor Antonio Brilla, still a child, prepared the statues distinguishing each other as bearer of a different gift to the Infant Jesus: baskets of fruit, vegetables or bread, pampkins, cabbage, poultry, kids, pigeons, fish, providing the revealer impression on the ligurian creche typology in the XIX century.
To the industrial production pretty soon came to support to Albisola the domestic production, when the workshops manufacturing painted terracotta kitchenware, started to bring out also statues moulded by their skilled workers mothers, wives and daughters, an example of black market "ante litteram".
The small statues, reproduction of popular characters, despicably named macacchi because badly sketched and painted in a naif fashion, were sold off at the annual Santa Lucia market held in Savona on December 13th.
Each of the domestic figurin makers had a nickname who identified them as a trade-mark: Campanaa, Circia, Fata Geinin, Nanin a Cioa, Tere a Russa, Mominin, up to the last trustee of this candid but poetical handicraft form, Beatrice Schiappapietra who worked in Albisola until 1970.
Last descendants of ligurian creche art, the sculptors Arturo Martini and Tullio Mazzotti, who projected in the '20s static pottery creches, in the style marked by the aesthetical rules proposed by the futurist movement.