History and Tradition of the Creche
The typical italian tradition of the creche is achieved in different style forms and with the use of various matters reflecting the geographical origin and the different historical periods in which the artisans were operating.
In the following section, besides a brief creche historical note, there will be summarized these differences at least for those regions where the creche tradition has put down deeper roots, proposing distinctive and personal features. As: the neapolitan creche, with the '700 as its golden century, tied up to the personality of Carlo III di Borbone, the patron sovereign who will lead Napoli to a wonderful cultural and artistic flourishing, which the creche art will be one of the most wonderful expression; the sicilian creche, with its innovating ceroplastics technique or the use of peculiar matters as coral, ivory, bone, mother-of-pearl, alabaster, shells and other marine matters typical of Trapani's creche art; the roman creche, modelled after the partenopean creche, but rejecting its ostentation and laical spirit, to bring back to the centre of the composition the Holy Family, surrounded by unpretentious figures with a sober and essential scenography, generally made up by a cork cave with in the background a typical landscape of roman countryside, with its pinetrees, olives and the ruins of ancient aqueducts; the pugliese creche, distinguished by the use of paper-pulp and by the so called "focheggiatura" technique, in the city of Lecce; the ligurian creche, particularly the poor one of the XIX century, realized in the cities of Savona and Albissola kilns, with clay pressed in the moulds of the most recurrent creche characters, subsequently hand painted.
A part of this section has been devoted to the spreading of the creche in the world (still to be published).
THE CRECHE THROUGH THE CENTURIES
The Evangelists Luca and Matteo have been the first to describe the Nativity. In their passages, there is already the complete holy representation which since the Middle Age will be given the latin name of "praesepium", meaning "closed fence", "manger". Infact, it is told about the humble birth of Jesus, as Luca reports, "in a manger as there was no place in any hotel" (Ev. 2,7); about the announcement given to the shepards; about the Magi who came from the East following the Comet to adore the Infant, who had been announced already king by the heaven wonders.
This event so familiar and so human if, on the one hand, strikes the palaeo-christians imagination, making less obscure the mistery of God turning into man, on the other hand, it urges them to notice the trascendent aspects such as the Infant divinity and Maria's virginity. In this way it is explained the third century parietal images in the S. Agnese cemetery and in the catacombs of Pietro and Marcellino and Domitilla's in Rome, where it is shown a Nativity and the adoration of the Magi, to whom the Armenian apocryphal vangel gives the names of Gaspare, Melchiorre and Baldassarre; still, above all, the characters are overburden of allegoric significance added to the original iconography: the donkey and the ox, added by Origene, interpreter of the Abacus and Isaia's prophecies, become Jewish people and heathens symbols; the Magi, whose number of three, fixed by S. Leone Magno, allows a double interpretation, as the man three ages: youth, maturity and old age; and, as well, the three human races: semite, giapetica and hamite, as per biblical narration; the angels, examples of superior creatures; the shepards as humanity to redeem and finally Maria and Giuseppe who are represented in adoration attitude, starting from the XIII century, to underline the Infant regality. Even the Magi's presents are interpreted with reference to the double nature of Jesus and his regality: incense, for his divinity, myrrha, for his being human, gold as the present reserved to kings.
Beginning from the IV century, the Nativity becomes one of the prevailing subject of religious art; in this production are conspicuous for their artistic value: the Nativity and Magi adoration of the five-parts diptych in ivory and precious stones, of the V century, which can be admired in Milano's Duomo and also the mosaics at the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, the Battistero of S. Maria in Venice and the S. Maria Maggiore and S. Maria in Trastevere Basilicas. In these works of art, where the oriental influence is manifest, the described ambient is the cave, that was used at that time to shelter the animals, with announcing angels, while Maria and Giuseppe are represented in a hieratic attitude as Gods or, in antithesis, as minor characters, nearly not related to the represented event.
From the XIV century, the Nativity has given to the artistic inspiration of the most celebrated artists, who engaged themselves in frescos, paintings, sculptures, ceramics, silverware, ivories, and glass windows which make precious the churches and the residences of nobles and wealthy customers from all over Europe, worth mentioning Giotto, Filippo Lippi, Piero della Francesca, il Perugino, Durer, Rembrandt, Poussin, Zurbaran, Murillo, Correggio, Rubens and many more.
The creche as we still see realized nowadays has its origin, by tradition, from S. Francesco's anxiety to relive Bethlehem birth in a natural scenery, with real characters, shepherds, peasants, monks and nobles all together involved in the commemoration which took place in 1223 on Christamas night in Greccio; event that has been masterly painted by Giotto in the Basilica Superiore of Assisi fresco. Instead, the first example of lifeless creche, which has reached us, has been that carved in wood by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1280, of which still are preserved the remaining statues in the Cappella Sistina crypt in S. Maria Maggiore in Rome. Since then and until the half of 1400 the artists shape wooden or terracotta statues placed before a painted background reproducing the Nativity scene landscape; the creche is exhibited in churches on Christmas time.
Cradle of such artistic activity was Tuscany, but pretty soon the creche spreads in the reign of Napoli by Carlo III di Borbone and in the rest of Italian states. In the '600s and '700s the neapolitan artists give to the holy representation a naturalistic imprint inserting the Nativity into the Campania's landscape rebuilt into life scenes showing characters from noble, middle class and the common people represented in their daily occupations or in moments of recreation: feasting in taverns or engaged in dancing and serenades. Further innovation is the transformation of the statues in wooden manikins with iron-wire limbs, to give the impression of movement, dressed with garments peculiar to that epoch and provided with entertainment instruments or working tools typical of the job practiced and reproduced up to the smallest detail. This to give likelihood to the scene defined by buildings reproducing places typical of city or country: markets, taverns, residences, farmhouses, ruins of ancient pagan temples.
To such sumptuous compositions gave their contribution various artisans and regal court workers and the nobles, as stated by the splendid embroidered clothes worn by the Magi or other important characters, often woven in the S. Leucio regal factory. At this time the ligurian artists also, particularly in Genoa, distinguish themselves, and the sicilian artists, who, generally, draw their inspiration, in technique and in the realistic effects, from the neapolitan tradition with a few exceptions as, for instance, the use of wax in Palermo and Siracusa or the cold painted terracotta in Savona and Albisola. Still in '700s the mechanical or movement creche spreads, with its renowned forerunner in that manufactured by Hans Schlottheim in 1588 for Cristiano I of Saxony.
The diffusion to popular level is fully achieved in the '800s, when each family in occasion of Christmas builds at home a creche, reproducing the Nativity according to the traditional rules, with material – plaster or terracotta little statues, paper-pulp and other – supplied by a flourishing handicraft. The creche art in Puglia, particularly in Lecce, distinguishes itself in this century, for the innovating use of paper-pulp, polichrome or fire-treated, draped over an iron-wire framework and tow.
In Rome, the important and wealthy families were competing to have built the most imposing creches, placed in the town itself or in the roman country environment, allowing their fellow citizens and tourists to visit them. Renowned the family Forti creche, placed over the Anguillara's Tower, or Buttarelli's family in Via de' Genovesi, reproducing Greccio and the S. Francesco's creche, or Padre Bonelli's in the Santi XII Apostoli church arcade, partially mechanical with the reproduction of the Lake Tiberiade ploughed by boats and the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Nowadays, after the weakening of the creche tradition in the '60s and '70s, also due to the introduction of the Christmas tree, the creche has come back to flourish, thanks to the diligence of religious and private citizens, who in associations like "Amici del Presepe", museums like the Brembo di Dalmine in Bergamo, exhibits, typical the yearly exhibit "100 Presepi" at "Sale del Bramante" in Rome; the Arena di Verona exhibit, with its live representations, such as the recalling of the first creche of S. Francesco in Greccio, and the living creches of Rivisondoli in Abruzzo or Revine in Veneto and, above all, thanks to the manufacture of creche artisans, particularly from Napoli and Sicily, heires of the past creche schools, have brought back into the houses and into the Italian squares the Nativity and every single character which belongs to the creche christian symbology.